The Tennessee Titans looked awful in the first half but came to life in the third quarter to dig their way out of a 21-3 halftime hole and defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 22-21, on Saturday.
It was the first postseason victory for the Titans in 14 years, and they became the first road team since 1957 to overcome an 18-point, second-half deficit to win.
The Titans will have to wait until Sunday to find out where they’re headed next week after advancing. If the Jacksonville Jaguars win, Tennessee will travel to face the New England Patriots. But if the Buffalo Bills come away with a victory, it’ll be a road game for the Titans against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If Tennessee plays the way it did in the second half and avoids the pitfalls that led to a slow start, the Titans may be able to do some damage next weekend. Here’s how they fell behind and then managed to pull off the come-from-behind victory Saturday:
Alex Smith was efficient and mistake-free in the 1st half
The Chiefs’ quarterback gets knocked for struggling to make the big plays sometimes, but one things he rarely does is lose a game for his team. He has just one multi-interception game in the last two seasons, and he avoided throwing any to the Titans on Saturday.
His most impressive moment came at the end of the first half when he led the Chiefs down the field on a nine-play, 79-yard drive that was capped with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson with three seconds left in the half.
By halftime, the Chiefs had a 21-3 lead, and Smith had one of the most impressive starts to a game in his entire career.
Alex Smith: 19-of-23 (82.6 pct) in 1st half, with 2 drops— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 6, 2018
Only 1 player in last 25 seasons had 20+ throws and a higher comp pct in the 1st half of a playoff game: Aaron Rodgers (2010 at ATL)
's 231 passing yards are his 5th-most in a half of any game, including playoffs
Most of the big plays for the Chiefs’ offense were short passes from Smith that turned into something more, but even in those cases, the quarterback did what he could to contribute. On one play, he even blocked linebacker Wesley Woodyard to help spring Tyreek Hill for a first down.
But all those good tidings came to a screeching halt at halftime. In the first 24 minutes of the second half, he had just 11 yards passing and couldn’t lead the Chiefs to first downs, let alone points.
Even when Adoree’ Jackson muffed a punt to set Kansas City up with great field position, the Chiefs did nothing with it.
Smith finished the game with 264 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. That’s a strong stat line, but not when you consider that he already had 231 yards and two touchdowns at halftime.
His contract runs through the 2018 season, but the Chiefs can save $17 million by releasing him. With Kansas City not doing anything with four trips to the playoffs in the last five years, it looks like it’s time for Patrick Mahomes, who was drafted with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 draft.
Marcus Mariota did enough in the second half
This was not a good year for the No. 2 pick from the 2015 NFL draft. There’s still reason to be concerned about Mariota’s development after he finished his third year in the league with 13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 79.3 passer rating after finishing with a rating over 90 in his first two years.
It looked like more of the same early Saturday when he finished the first two quarters with no touchdowns and one interception. It led to a huge hole for the Titans to dig out of.
He finally managed to get the Titans rolling and back in striking range in the third quarter when he threw a touchdown to himself.
That play proved to be a turning point for the Titans, swinging momentum in Tennessee’s favor.
Derrick Henry closed the gap further with a 35-rushing touchdown, and Mariota finally gave the Titans a lead when he found Eric Decker for a 22-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Mariota finished with 205 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception and played with toughness in the second half, even springing Henry on a game-clinching run by throwing a key block.
The Titans’ slow start wasn’t all Mariota’s fault
If the Titans hope to get Mariota on track and off to a fast start next week, the offense around him needs to do him more favors.
On one scoring opportunity, he was annihilated by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who had a free path to the quarterback because Henry completely missed his block.
On Mariota’s interception, he threw into traffic, which was hard not to do when three receivers were all in the same place.
What a bunch of Mularkey.
The absence of Travis Kelce hurt the Chiefs
Kansas City jumped all over the Titans early, including a 13-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Kelce in the first quarter that made it 14-0.
But on the last drive of the first half, Kelce took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Titans safety Johnathan Cyprien that left the tight end woozy and having difficulty standing. He exited the game and didn’t return.
The Chiefs finished the drive with a touchdown, but with Kelce gone in the second half, Kansas City’s offense couldn’t get going and allowed the Titans to climb back into contention.
The Titans didn’t get the two-point conversions they needed
If Tennessee kicked extra points, and Ryan Succop managed to knock them all through, the Titans would’ve had a three-point lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t a bad choice by head coach Mike Mularkey to go for two, considering one touchdown put the Titans down five points and another put the team up one. If either were converted, it would’ve made the score a field-goal difference, but neither worked.
That may be a result of the Titans not having attempted a two-point conversion in the regular season.
It looked like it could’ve been disastrous when the Chiefs drove into Tennessee territory late in the fourth quarter, but the Titans defense held, and the two-point conversions didn’t come back to haunt them.
Derrick Henry ate up the Chiefs
All eyes are on Mariota most of the time in Tennessee, but by the end of the game, Henry had bulldozed his way to 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
For some reason, the Titans gave DeMarco Murray the majority of the touches during the regular season despite Henry’s superior production. Tennessee couldn’t do that in the final two weeks after Murray suffered a knee injury, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be a problem that Henry is the one taking all the carries now.
The Heisman Trophy winner ran through a Kansas City defense that struggled for most of the season, and he put the game on ice with a couple more first downs in the last three minutes that kept the Chiefs from getting another offensive possession.
If the Titans are going to knock off one of the AFC powers in the Divisional Round, they’ll need to lean on Henry again.