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Titans provide reminder of potential with shellacking of Chiefs

NASHVILLE -- They scored on their first five possessions, held the Chiefs without a touchdown for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, and generally had their way with the defending AFC champions. Not that anyone would know it from the Titans' reactions.

One by one they stepped behind the lectern in Nissan Stadium following the 27-3 demolition on Sunday and acted as if there was nothing to see, as if a dominant win just six days after a compelling victory over fellow AFC-power Buffalo was just another game in just another season.

"Long way to go," said coach Mike Vrabel.

"We didn't win the Super Bowl today," said wideout A.J. Brown.

"They're not handing out Lombardi Trophies in the middle of the season," said safety Kevin Byard.

The call for calm was understandable considering the Titans lost to the one-win Jets three weeks ago. But the performance was affirmation that Nashville must be included on the list of cities through which the road to the Super Bowl could run.

They didn't just beat the Chiefs; they beat them down, leading 14-0 after one quarter and 27-0 at the half. They showed balance on offense, with Ryan Tannehill completing 21 of 27 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown, Derrick Henry rushing for 86 yards and throwing for a score, and Brown snagging eight passes for 133 yards and a TD. Tennessee displayed dominance on defense, too, registering four sacks and three takeaways.

The whipping was so thorough Chiefs coach Andy Reid figuratively waved a white flag with just over eight minutes to play, pulling Mahomes after the star quarterback was hit in the head by Jeffery Simmons' leg while trying to escape the grasp of another defender. Mahomes cleared concussion protocol but did not return to the game, with Reid wisely choosing not to subject the face of the franchise to more punishment.

"You get hit pretty hard, sometimes you just want to lay there," said Mahomes, who stayed down on the turf for several seconds after the hit. "Plus, it was fourth down. ... It was a disappointing day and disappointing way it ended."

Mahomes appeared wobbly after being helped to his feet, and now it's fair to wonder if the Chiefs are staggering. The beating was unlike anything we have seen from them since Mahomes took over in 2018. During their height, the Chiefs appeared to toy with defenses, breaking their coverages and their will. But not this season.

While still able to put up points, much of the year has been a grind, with uncharacteristic turnovers being a major factor. Sunday marked the second time this season Mahomes, who finished 20 of 35 for 206 yards, had both an interception and lost a fumble in the same game. His fumble was the Chiefs' 16th giveaway this year, matching their total for all of last season.

Defenses are taking away the deep ball and testing the Chiefs' ability to be patient, which normally might not be a problem for them except their own defense is struggling to make stops. Hence, Kansas City keeps finding itself playing catch-up, which elevates the pressure on Mahomes and Co.

On Sunday, Tennessee went 75 yards in eight plays on its opening possession, with Henry taking the snap in the Wildcat formation and floating a pass to the back of the end zone for the 5-yard score to MyCole Pruitt. It went 97 yards in nine plays on its next possession, with Brown catching a 24-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill. Its third series ended in a field goal for a 17-0 lead.

At that point it was clear a sense of urgency, if not panic, was falling over the Chiefs because Mahomes uncharacteristically forced a pass to Josh Gordon, who was blanketed in coverage. The ball was tipped and intercepted by Rashaan Evans, and Tannehill scored on a 2-yard run eight plays later.

Immediately after, Mahomes again pressed to make a play before the half, taking off on a run to right side. But Byard closed and punched the ball free, setting up a 51-yard field goal for a 27-0 halftime lead.

The Chiefs are now 3-4, which matches their season-high for losses since Mahomes stepped into the starting lineup. The 24-point margin was the largest loss of the Mahomes era, including the playoffs, and the three points were the fewest scored since he took over as QB1. The Chiefs' 17 giveaways are the most in the league as of this writing, and they're allowing 29 points per game, which would be a franchise high for a season.

These are undoubtedly developments welcomed by Vrabel, because he knows the focus on what's wrong with the Chiefs could take the spotlight off of what's right with the Titans -- and there is a lot that's right with them. When you can shut down an offense as potent as Kansas City's despite being without four of your top seven defensive backs, and when you can excel offensively when linemen are in and out of the lineup because of injury, there is reason to believe that something special could be brewing.

But Vrabel doesn't want to acknowledge that publicly. He learned the Patriot Way while playing under Bill Belichick and even has taken on some of the personality traits of his former coach. For instance, he didn't smile once in his postgame press conference despite his team's impressive performance. In fact, his answers were relatively brief and overarching, not unlike the man he learned from. When asked about the significance of back-to-back wins over last season's AFC Championship Game participants, he grumbled about being in the early stage of a long season, then abruptly walked off.

But it's hard not to notice the Titans, who are 5-2 and leading the AFC South. Dating back to the second quarter of Monday night's game against the Bills, they had scored on 11 consecutive possessions, excluding one-play drives to end the first half and end the game last week. At one point Tannehill had completed 21 consecutive passes over the second half of the Buffalo game and the first half Sunday. The Titans were operating with such precision they seemed almost unstoppable.

Some of the credit belongs to offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who called a beautiful game in the first half on Sunday. Aware that the Chiefs would be focused on slowing Henry, who leads the league in rushing by a large amount, he used play-action, screens and passes from the Wildcat formation to exploit the defense.

What could help put the Titans over the top, however, is the defense. It has struggled at times this season, largely because of injuries, but Sunday was a glimpse of its potential. After ranking last in the league in sacks per pass attempt in 2020, the front office made additions such as outside linebacker Bud Dupree, whose strip-sack on the Chiefs' opening series set the tone. Sunday was indeed a reminder of what could be.

"There's nothing to get carried away about," Tannehill said. "We are seven games into a 17-game regular season. We have a lot of football in front of us. We just have to stay the course, enjoy the wins, keep building, grow as a team and be able to put a good team effort out each and every week."

Say this for the Titans: They're coachable on the field and off.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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