Chiefs hosts down-to-wire Titans in wild-card game
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The two clubs opening the wild card playoff round at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday afternoon enter from opposite perspectives.
The Chiefs clinched their second straight AFC West championship two weeks ago and coasted to the finish. The Tennessee Titans fought to the final minute of the season in breaking a three-game skid to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008.
"We had a number of chances to get ourselves in, but unfortunately we had to wait until the last one to do it," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "I don't know if that made it better, but it's a good feeling."
The Titans and Chiefs have some familiarity with one another. Tennessee visited Kansas City in Week 15 of the 2016 season, overcoming a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit in rallying for a 19-17 win.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said his offense and quarterback Alex Smith missed too many opportunities in that game.
"We started out fast and then they creeped back, they got us there at the end," Nagy said. "We had some opportunities to make some plays, we didn't. We've all watched that tape, we understand what wrong and how to try to fix it."
Tennessee left an impression on Kansas City head coach Andy Reid as an active bunch on both sides of the football with good speed, including with the mobile Marcus Mariota at quarterback.
"He's a real smart kid," Reid said. "Looks like he's picked it up well. He's got a pretty good feel for the pass game. He's got good players around him too."
The Chiefs remain wary of the scrambling ability of Mariota and his ability to make plays outside the pocket. Mariota finished the regular season with just 13 touchdown passes versus 15 interceptions.
"I don't have to harp on that with him, he knows we've got to do a better job of taking care of the football, especially this time of year," Mularkey said.
Kansas City's defense thrives on turnovers, which have proved highly predictive of the team's success this season. The defense generated 24 turnovers during the team's 10 wins but took the ball away just twice in six loses.
Mularkey said that's indicative of Kansas City's complementary style in all three phases.
"They do a great job of taking care of the football and they do a great job of taking it away," Mularkey said. "Well coached, a lot of the same guys have been there a long time in the same schemes, they execute it very well."
The Chiefs enter the game with a series of injuries taking a hard on their special teams. The team lost kick returners Akeem Hunt and De'Anthony Thomas to injuries in the season finale for the remainder of the season, leaving them with only wide receiver Tyreek Hill with significant experience returning kickoffs. But the team has been reluctant to expose a key offensive weapon to the kick return game.
The team is also battling injuries along the defensive line, with Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Jarvis Jenkins missing practice time this week. That could prove pivotal in a game in which the Chiefs hope to slow down the Titans' rushing attack and contain Mariota in the pocket.
Running back DeMarco Murray has been ruled out with an MCL tear, leaving Derrick Henry as the team's lead back against the Chiefs. Starting cornerback Logan Ryan and Da'Norris Searcy both missed practice Wednesday with an illness.
While the Chiefs' veteran roster has four playoff appearances in four seasons under Reid, this marks the first appearance for most of the Titans' players as well as the first for Mularkey in six seasons as a head coach. He doesn't believe postseason experience makes much of a difference in matchup such as this.
"I don't think so," Mularkey said. "Everything gets amped up and that won't be any different for this one. I don't think there's any advantage by having it."
Kansas City may have the experience but they also history working against them. The Chiefs haven't won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in 24 years. Smith wouldn't mind seeing that streak come to an end.
"It would be nice to break that but you can't add any extra motivation once you get to this stage," Smith said. "It is tough to add any more motivation with historic streaks or things like that. We would love for that to be a byproduct of hard work and getting a win."
Updated January 4, 2018