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Titans vs. Chiefs: AFC Wild Card Weekend preview

The Backstory

Wild Card Weekend opens with a strange, unexpected matchup. If things had broken the way many expected with four weeks to go, Kansas City wouldn't be division champions, hosting a playoff game for the second straight season. With three consecutive losses at one point in December, few expected the Titans to snag the top wild-card spot, not to mention even make the postseason.

Kansas City hasn't won consecutive AFC West titles since, well, ever. With Reid and Alex Smith under center, the Chiefs have made the playoffs four times in five seasons, but have won just one game, a drubbing of Brian Hoyer's fraudulent Texans in 2016. Their three losses have all come at the hands of top-tier QBs (Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger), calling into question whether K.C. can win a Super Bowl, or hell, make an AFC title game with Smith at the helm.

This year could be Kansas City's best chance: Smith put up career-high numbers; Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill have replaced Jamaal Charles and Jeremy Maclin from years past, and then some; and Travis Kelce is the league's best tight end west of Plymouth Bay. An aging, injury-riddled defense and the presence of young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes, though, are signals that time is running out for the current nucleus to chase glory, that this might be the last march.

Rejuvenated by an influx of young talent (Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, Adoree' Jackson), Tennessee is back in the postseason for the first time since 2008. But if not for a Week 17 win over the Jaguars, Tennessee would have fallen out of the race. Mike Mularkey's exotic smashmouth offense has struggled to replicate their 2016 production. Mariota is less explosive -- the same goes for gimpy DeMarco Murray -- and his reworked receiving corps hasn't picked him up. But Tennessee is buoyed by an advantageous and improving defense, led by interception king Kevin Byard. Living on the fringes of relevance for so long, the Titans will be back on the main stage Saturday where, thanks to their late-season slide, no one expects much of them. What's new?

Under Pressure

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans: The humble Hawaiian gets his first shot at righting this year's wrongs. Entering the pros as a mobile threat, Mariota was hindered by injuries and sluggish receiver play in this, his worst season as a pro. The league's best play-action passer and one of its most proficient under pressure, Mariota's 79.3 passer rating is still the lowest among qualified playoff QBs. His struggles on tight-window throws have been well-documented, and his ill-timed turnovers sank Tennessee on multiple occasions. But against a vulnerable Chiefs secondary, Mariota has an opportunity to live up to his second-overall billing.

Andy Reid, coach, Chiefs: It's not quite the end of an era in Kansas City, but it feels damn near close. Next season, Reid, the creative steward of two cursed franchises, is at risk of losing his hot-shot offensive coordinator, Matt Nagy, to a needy team and is expected to transfer power from Smith to Mahomes, whose free-wheeling style will change the Chiefs' identity for years to come. Coaching decisions have been at the heart of K.C.'s last three postseason losses, too; think running the clock down in New England, and blowing a 38-10 third-quarter lead in Indy. A loss to an underwhelming upstart in Tennessee would damage Reid's legacy immeasurably.

Matchup to Watch

Kansas City receivers vs. Tennessee secondary:When K.C.'s offense was rolling earlier this year, much of it was due to the long-dormant downfield threat. Per Pro Football Focus, Hill has the highest catch rate (52.2 percent), Kelce leads all tight ends in receptions (9) and yards (266) on deep balls and Smith is the most accurate deep-ball passer in the league (56.5 percent). You heard that right. Tennessee has a counter for that. The Titans have allowed the second-lowest passer rating on deep attempts (42.1) and are the only club to allow fewer than 10 deep completions (7). With speed demons Hill and Titans rookie corner Adoree' Jackson and big bodies Kelce and Byard locked on each other, look for Albert Wilson to have a make-or-break day in the slot.


This one will turn on turnovers. The Titans are the only playoff team with a negative TO differential (-4), while Kansas City is plus-nine since Marcus Peters' team-imposed suspension. If the Chiefs can force Mariota to test Peters and commit turnovers, K.C. will dictate the pace of this postseason opener and finally send an Arrowhead crowd home happy in January.

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