When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, where the Chiefs lost a heartbreaker to the Steelers last January.
TV: ESPN, with Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden (last game before joining the Raiders?), Lisa Salters and Adam Schefter (who is reporting that Gruden will be joining the Raiders).
Spread / total: Chiefs -8.5 / 44
Last time they met: The Titans came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to upset Kansas City on the road in December 2016. It wasn’t a pretty performance from either team.
Five things you need to know
1. Fair or not, this could be Alex Smith’s last shot: Smith was the league’s highest-rated passer in 2017, and a legitimate MVP candidate based on his prowess on deep balls. But if the Chiefs once again fail to deliver in January, he and head coach Andy Reid will immediately come under fire. Those two embarrassed themselves in recent playoff failures against the Colts, Patriots and Steelers, so if that happens again I’d expect Kansas City to replace the soon-to-be 34-year-old with 2017 No. 10 overall pick Patrick Mahomes II in the offseason.
2. Marcus Mariota is a wild card: Quarterbacks making their first career playoff start are 1-10 since 2013, which doesn’t bode well for the young Titans signal-caller. Mariota arguably regressed in a turnover-heavy third season, which is why few expect his team to take down an experienced Kansas City squad on the road in January.
But at any given moment, Mariota has the ability to make a game-changing play with his arm or legs. Yes, he’s a multi-limb threat, and one of the most unique talents in the game. It wouldn’t be totally surprising if that were the difference in this tilt, just as it was when Mariota ran for two huge first downs on Tennessee’s playoff-clinching drive Sunday against Jacksonville.
3. The Titans have a shot if… their stout defensive front can totally shut down 2017 rushing champion Kareem Hunt in the Kansas City backfield, forcing Smith to face his demons and beat the defense deep. Tennessee has a high-quality pass-rush and the league’s fourth-rated run defense, so I can’t see the Chiefs exploding. If the Titans can control Hunt, they’ll likely hang in. Then it’ll be up to Mariota and running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to bully a defense that hasn’t had a lot of bite without superstar safety Eric Berry.
4. The Chiefs have done more for you lately: Kansas City was the best team in football during a 5-0 start, disappeared for nearly two months and then was again one of the league’s strongest teams in the month of December. The Chiefs have won four straight games, with three of those victories coming by double-digit margins. Meanwhile, the Titans limped into the playoffs with a 1-3 final quarter, barely surviving against the Jaguars in Week 17 in order to sneak into the playoffs.
5. The broadcast dynamics are odd: Again, Gruden’s colleague, Schefter, has reported that the former Raiders and Buccaneers head coach will be replacing fired Oakland coach Jack Del Rio. With that in mind, Gruden’s involvement in production meetings with coaches and players has caused some controversy. It’ll be interesting to see how he approaches calling this game, since he has done nothing to dispute his colleague’s claim that it’ll be his last as an ESPN color commentator.
Under-the-radar potential X factor: Titans safety Kevin Byard led the NFL with eight interceptions in the regular season, with seven of those picks coming in just three games. He also had more passes defensed (16) than any other safety in football. Smith doesn’t turn it over often but if he grows impatient and tries to force things deep, Byard could make him pay.
Prediction: These teams are going in opposite directions. And although I’m still not convinced Smith and Co. can slay New England or Pittsburgh in the divisional playoffs, I think they’ll have enough in them to get past a Titans team that doesn’t appear to be ready for a playoff run. Chiefs 27, Titans 17