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Chiefs vs. Titans: Five Things to Watch

Here are some storylines to keep in mind of Saturday’s playoff game

The Kansas City Chiefs have been all about breaking the kind of franchise streaks that people don't enjoy discussing since head coach Andy Reid took over prior to the 2013 season.

In his first year, Reid and company orchestrated the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history—a nine-win improvement from 2012 to 2013, and then in 2015, the Chiefs went on the road in Houston and picked up their first playoff win in more than 20 years—snapping an eight-game postseason losing streak.

And then just a few weeks ago, the Chiefs clinched their second-consecutive division title—something they had never done in franchise history.

Now, the team looks to break the next streak on their radar—a five-game home playoff losing streak that dates back to January 8, 1994, which was a time that guys like Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, and Chris Jones weren't even alive for yet.

So, when the Chiefs host the Tennessee Titans Saturday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium—the memories of many of those games over the past two decades will be fresh in the minds of the tens of thousands in attendance who lived all of those experiences, but in all fairness, that has nothing to do with the players and coaches who will take the field on Saturday. Every team is different. Every year is different.

The weight of this streak doesn't force its will upon their shoulders, but the passion of those widely understood and acknowledged as the loudest fans in the National Football League will have a chance to do their part in making sure this team continues to break down walls that have stood for far too long.

After all, it's been their deal since Reid arrived.

The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday and it'll start before kickoff with one of the best big-game traditions in Arrowhead Stadium's history—a B2 bomber flyover.

And there's plenty more that fans should expect before the game.

"We love it," Chiefs' coach Andy Reid said of Chiefs Kingdom and the Arrowhead atmosphere. "There's nothing like it when that place is packed and it's a little cold and the ground is shaking. It doesn't get any better."

There's plenty to like about Saturday's playoff matchup, and here are five storylines to follow during Chiefs-Titans:

1. The rushing attacks on both sides

The Chiefs and Titans are both significantly better when they're successfully running the football, which is true of most teams, but they are both actually good at running the ball.

The Titans were 6-0 this year when rushing for at least 100 yards, and just 3-7 when failing to hit that mark.

On the flipside, the Chiefs were 9-2 this year when getting at least 100 yards on the ground, compared to 1-4 when they didn't.

The Titans have already ruled out veteran running back DeMarco Murray, who led them with 184 carries and six rushing touchdowns this year, but he's dealing with a knee injury. That means the Chiefs will see a heavy dose of Derrick Henry—the 6-foot-3, 247-pound downhill runner whom the Titans selected in the second round of the draft last year out of Alabama.

But even with his size, Henry has the speed to break into the open field and make things difficult for a defense. He ran a 4.5 40-yard dash coming out of Alabama two years ago, and his 66-yard touchdown reception last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars showed plenty of burst.

"They're a physical team. They come in and they run the ball," veteran Tamba Hali said of the Titans' offense.

Defensively, the Chiefs will rely on their entire front seven to shut down the Titans running game, which is led by their two outstanding offensive tackles—Taylor Lewan (6'7", 309 lbs) and Jack Conklin (6'6", 308 lbs).

"It forces you to toughen up—you've got to hit them in the mouth," Chiefs' defensive lineman Chris Jones said of facing a team you know wants to be physical and run the ball. Jones has three sacks and a forced fumble in his last four games.

One player who will find himself in the middle of all of this action is linebacker Reggie Ragland—a thumping inside guy tasked with holding down the middle of the Chiefs' defense. He'll be facing an old college teammate at Alabama in Henry.

Ragland has taken ahold of one of the Chiefs' inside positions—starting 10 games after coming over in a trade with the Buffalo Bills at the end of the preseason. He has 44 tackles on year and ranks 11th in the league among inside linebackers against the run, per Pro Football Focus.

"You've got a player who loves to play the game," veteran Tamba Hali said of Ragland. "He's physical and I've been here some time and to have him in your locker room, that's huge. He's played amongst other top players from his class, he's played in championship games, so he understands, he's a fine player and I give him props."

On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs will try and get rookie Kareem Hunt—the winner of the NFL's rushing title, going in this one. It's easier said than done as he and the Chiefs' offensive line will be facing the league's No. 4 rush defense in the Titans, who are allowing just 88.8 yards per game on the ground.

One of the main reasons for that success is their guy right in the middle of the action in nose tackle Jurrell Casey (No. 99), who grades out as the No. 3-ranked 3-4 defensive end in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

"He's crafty," Chiefs' offensive coordinator Matt Nagy explained Casey. "He likes to get after the quarterback. He has a lot of good moves on the inside. So, our guys on the interior have to be focused on that. But he's a good player, he's a Pro Bowl player that plays hard, his motor is always going, so we have to know where he's at."

"He's powerful, he's quick and he's got all the tools to be a good defensive lineman," Chiefs' center Zach Fulton said of Casey. "We just have to work together to shut him down."

2. How the Chiefs handle the Titans' zone blitzes

The Titans' defensive coordinator is Dick Lebeau, who is widely known as the "architect of the zone blitz" from all his years spent with the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

There aren't many better than Lebeau, and the Chiefs are fully aware of the challenge that awaits them with this Titans' defense.

"They're fast and they attack the ball," Reid explained. "They mix things up. They do a lot of games up front, very active. Not the biggest guys, but fast, quick, and great timing on their games. Then they have the fire zone blitz package on top of that."

As a team, the Titans are tied for fifth in the league with 43 sacks, but they don't have a single player ranked in the top 35 of the league in that category. Derrick Morgan leads them with 7.5 sacks, and they have four players with at least 5.0 sacks.

They rely on everyone, which is why it's a challenge.

3. Alex Smith vs. Marcus Mariota: Who makes more plays?

In his career, Chiefs' quarterback Alex Smith has been great in the playoffs. He's completed 60 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in six games, which is the best postseason TD-to-INT ratio in the Super Bowl era (min. 200 attempts), and now he's coming off the best regular-season performance of his career.

"I think having been there can only help you," Smith said of the playoffs. "Good and bad, all those experiences—I think having been at this stage before—you carry those with you. They don't make or break anything, but they only contribute."

While he won't find himself on the field at the same time as Mariota, the storyline is about which quarterback and offense will make more plays?

Led by Smith, the Chiefs' offense showed throughout the season to be as balanced as any other in NFL history—becoming just the second team to ever have a 4,000-yard passer (Smith), a 1,000-yard rusher (Hunt), a 1,000-yard tight end (Kelce), and a 1,000-yard receiver (Hill).

On the other side, the Titans are led by Mariota, who didn't necessarily have the follow-up season that many were expecting coming into the year. He's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, but still has the respect and full attention of the Chiefs' coaching staff.

"Marcus is a big man," Chiefs' defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained. "People don't realize he's 6'4" and 230 pounds. He has great speed, not just good—great speed. He obviously has the ability to get out of trouble in the pocket and extend plays. Strong-armed guy. He's fought through some injuries with the hamstring and all that.

"But right now, he's playing pretty good football. Big-time playmaker."

Over the last five games, which is the same time span that Chiefs' offensive coordinator Matt Nagy has been calling the plays, the Chiefs have averaged 29 points per game. The Titans average 17.5 points per game on the road this year, including just one game that they scored more than 23 points (Week 2-Jaguars, 37).

4. Will Tyreek Hill return kicks?

With backup running back and starting kick returner Akeem Hunt recently being placed on Injured Reserve with an ankle injury, plus the season-ending leg injury suffered last week by De'Anthony Thomas, who also returned kicks, Chiefs' special team's coordinator Dave Toub didn't rule out the possibility of Tyreek Hill going back there and returning kicks this week.

"I mean, we're going to practice hard with all the guys that we have, knowing that we still have [Hill] if we need him."

When asked if Hill is pushing to return kicks, Toub laughed.

"Yes. He wants to touch the ball all the time," he said. "It's in his DNA – that's what he wants to do."

Hill, who finished seventh in the NFL this year with 75 receptions for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns, had 14 kick returns for a total of 384 yards (27.4 ypr) and a touchdown last year. If it's not Hill, the duties may also go to running back Charcandrick West.

5. Turnovers, it's always turnovers

The Chiefs are 9-1 this year when winning the turnover battle. It's easily the most important stat in any game for most every team.

And this year, Smith became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 3,000 yards with 10 interceptions or less in five consecutive seasons—all of which have come with the Chiefs.

Defensively, the Chiefs have forced 12 turnovers over their past four games, which ranks second-best in the league over that span. On Saturday, if they can force Mariota, who is completing just 54.5 percent of his throws on third down into third-and-long situations, the Arrowhead crowd gets a chance to make an impact, along with these Chiefs' defensive backs and pass rushers.

For the Titans, Mariota has thrown the third-most interceptions of any quarterback in the league this year with 15, and even more importantly—11 of those have come on the road.

As a team, the Titans have turned it over 25 times this year, which ranks 23rd in the league.

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