This year’s AFC Championship features two clubs with diametrically opposed styles. The high-flying Kansas City Chiefs will host the rough-and-tumble Tennessee Titans, who enter the contest with two sensational road wins in New England and Baltimore under their belts this postseason.
It’s difficult to exhibit more explosiveness than the Chiefs showed last Sunday against the Texans, scoring 41 straight points en route to a 51-31 victory. Houston could not cover Travis Kelce in the red zone — he caught three touchdown passes — and failed to stop the Chiefs once they got rolling. But the Chiefs also capitalized on several Texans mistakes, such as an ill-advised second quarter fake punt when they were leading 24-7 and fumble on a kick-off return. The Titans, who have only turned over the ball once this postseason, likely won’t make the same mistakes.
And therein lies the challenge when it comes to handicapping this contest. Conventional wisdom says the star-studded Chiefs will be too much for the Titans to handle, especially since they’re playing at Arrowhead Stadium. But Mike Vrabel’s club has a knack for shortening games and playing flawless fundamental football. That may not be enough to compensate for Tennessee’s talent deficiency, but it could be enough to keep the game close.
Titans at Chiefs (Chiefs -7)
Sunday, 3:05 p.m.
The Chiefs will win this game outright and reach their first Super Bowl since 1969. Patrick Mahomes has exceeded 250 passing yards 11 times in 14 full games, and in four of his last five contests overall. He’s playing great football, and has a full compliment of weapons, ranging from Kelce to Tyreek Hill. Kansas City’s offense is superior and more dynamic than either New England or Baltimore’s.
In addition, the Chiefs boast a ferocious pass-rushing unit, which collected five sacks against the Texans last week. Ryan Tannehill will probably face some discomfort in the backfield.
But Tannehill will almost certainly not be the focal point of the Titans’ offense Sunday. Expect them to ride Derrick Henry as far as he will take them, as the unstoppable back has rushed for over 100 yards in seven of his last eight games. His excellence takes the pressure off Tannehill, allowing him to strike at opportune moments, such as when he opened up the Ravens defense last week with a 45-yard touchdown strike to Kalif Raymond.
Vrabel’s coaching brilliance has been on display all season, but it shined in the Wild Card Round against the Patriots, when he took advantage of an obscure loophole that allows clubs to keep taking penalties on punt attempts to whittle the clock down. The Titans were facing a 4th-and-4 from the New England 36-yard line with 6:39 left to play. Three penalties later, they punted the ball away with 4:44 left in regulation.
That sequence shows how the Titans are able to shorten games. Plus, the Chiefs are prone to some mistakes as well. Houston blocked a first quarter punt in the Divisional Round, scoring a touchdown to expand their early lead to 14-0.
At the end, expect talent to win in the AFC Championship. But the Chiefs, who haven’t won two games in the same postseason since 1993, will not march to an easy victory. While they will win outright, they will not cover the spread.
Verdict: Bet Titans