NFL Monday Morning Madness: Titans, Chiefs to meet in AFC tilt of opposites + a NFC rivalry renewed

Many have said the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is the best weekend in sports. I’m sure those people are not disappointed after this past weekend’s slate of games.

One major upset, one major comeback, and a close contest between two of the league’s top quarterbacks in legendary Lambeau Field.

But we begin with a side-by-side look at the AFC title game participants, and a barometer check of the conference as a whole.

*******

It almost happened. After an unfortunate turn of events, the Chiefs trailed the Texans 24-0 in the second quarter, with most believing that we were headed toward an unthinkable AFC “South” Championship Game — Tennessee at Houston.

Although intriguing and unexpected, it’s certainly not the game the NFL envisioned as a ratings bonanza for their second-most (tied) important game of their 100th season.

Luckily for those who may think that, Kansas City recovered. Patrick Mahomes reminded many of his brilliance in throwing for four second quarter touchdown passes, three to Travis Kelce, and Kansas City outscored Houston 51-7 the rest of the way, for a 51-31 victory.

“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports of Mahomes, after the game. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”

Mahomes vs Texans
Patrick Mahomes’ fiery attitude kept Kansas City’s playoff hopes alive, and broke Houston’s will and spirit. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Make no mistake, this was Mahomes’s finest performance  — 23 for 35, 321 yards, five touchdowns  — which comes in the form of a 24-point comeback that is tied for fourth-best in NFL postseason history. After being down big, the phenom quarterback led seven straight touchdown-scoring drives, for 41 unanswered points.

Kelce played his role of Robin, or maybe a second Batman, in hauling in 10 catches for 134 yards and three scores.

“Coach Reid is dialing them up for me and Pat is putting the ball on the money every single time,” Kelce told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. It’s definitely a combination of everything coming together,

Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but it took some off-script improvising by Mahomes and Kelce to come away with two key red zone scores during the comeback. Both times, Mahomes was flushed to the sideline, only to throw or pitch a touchdown to Kelce, who used spatial awareness to haul in scores around multiple defenders sitting near the end zone.

For fun, the Chiefs mercilessly added 118 yards on the ground and sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson five times — three sacks by offseason acquisition Frank Clark.

It was a fast-paced, track sprint of a victory by Kansas City that showcased their speed and explosiveness on offense, and finished with help from their new-and-improved defense, led by newcomers Clark and Mathieu.

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Less than 20 hours earlier, the Titans had pulled off the unthinkable, a 28-12 smash-mouth beatdown over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, whom were the league’s biggest regular season story.

Just like their win last week of Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, postseason hero Derrick Henry was heavily utilized. The gargantuan back carried the ball another 30 times for 195 and a touchdown, and also threw for a goal line score on a jump-pass to Corey Davis. His Tim Tebow-style leap pass was just one of several rushing highlights that included a 66-yard, back-breaking scramble to set up his touchdown throw, and another long run along the sideline earlier in which he stiff-armed Earl Thomas to the point of turning him around, and into a lead-blocking fullback for his amusement. His performance was again, unstoppable.

The offense started after Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson ball off Mark Andrews fingertips, and Ryan Tannehill lobbed a long 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, who did most of the work in an acrobatic touchdown catch that set the tone.

“…Just starting the game out the way we did was a big key for us….It was huge,” Kevin Byard told The Athletic. “They’re probably one of the best first-quarter teams in the league, so the fact we got up on them in the first quarter, it kind of changed the game plan a little bit.”

Additionally, defensive coordinator and wizard Dean Pees stymied yet another former club on his revenge tour, with this being the best defensive performance of any team, all season. Soon-to-be-named MVP Lamar Jackson was elusive and unstoppable all regular season, and he produced 508 total yards of offense on Saturday, but that was mostly a hollow facade that did not tell the story of this game.

Tennessee held Baltimore’s offense to 12 points and forced three Jackson turnovers. The Titans muddled the middle of the field and loaded the box on Baltimore’s rushing attack, bringing up top-tier safety duo of Byard and Kenny Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage for a good portion of the game.

“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told Bleacher Report. “We were either playing with a loaded box and man to man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano or we were going to play a zone defense, a quarters defense similar to what Buffalo did. And Buffalo played them well. Buffalo just didn’t score a lot of points on offense. So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”

Tennessee forced Jackson to throw 59 times, often leaving everything covered but the boundaries. Jackson struggled outside the numbers, showcased by a late interception by Vaccaro when the Ravens quarterback tried to hit Baltimore rookie Myles Boykin on a quick out toward the sideline when Baltimore was in near-desperation mode.

It doesn’t help that Baltimore lacks wide receiver talent outside of Hollywood Brown. Boykin and Willie Snead are not going to cut it. Baltimore had found success throwing to its three tight ends — Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle — all season, but the Titans took them, and the middle of the field away.

As a team that was used to punching teams in the mouth early and often, John Harbaugh looked nervous and frustrated on the sideline, unsure if his style of offense could mount a double-digit postseason comeback. Despite Jackson keeping his cool (at least) attempting to get his team back in the game, Baltimore never recovered. On top of their struggles in the passing game — minus a few nice downfield throws by Jackson to Brown through the rare soft Titans zone coverage — Jackson was stymied on two 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks after converting all eight such situations during the regular season.

For Baltimore, nothing seemed to work. They were left befuddled and disappointed, unable to capitalize on their best regular season in franchise history.

“Listen, Lamar Jackson’s the MVP,” Byard told The Athletic. “He deservingly is supposed to be the MVP, the will that he plays with, he’s an incredible athlete. He tried to do everything he possibly could to will his team back into it. But it was our day today.”

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill once again threw under 100 yards — 88 this week — but did throw for two touchdowns. Tennessee became the second team in postseason history to win back-to-back games in such fashion, joining the 1972 and 1973 Dolphins, and 1974 Steelers.

Behind Mike Vrabel’s fearless leadership, Tennessee came away with another old-school win. In a league where dual-threat quarterbacks and fast-break offenses equipped with speed and an NBA-style aggressivesnes are starting to take over, a defense and running game can still get it done. That shouldn’t seem so surprising, but yet, the win surprised many of us.

“If we’re being quite honest, we just shocked the world, and that’s all there is to it,” said Titans left guard Rodger Saffold.

“And the confidence and belief in this team is something I’ve felt before, and you guys already know that. This is a special team. We’re showing it. And you’ve got to love the underdog.”

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This weekend’s events left us with some questions about the changing-of-the-guard AFC that saw it’s dominating — for the past 20 years — team in the Patriots bow out early to a series of offseason questions, and it’s upstart, best-of-this-season team suffer perhaps the most shocking one-and-done loss in NFL playoff history.

What’s next for Baltimore? A soon-to-be optimistic look back on how they revolutionized football in 2019, perhaps. As Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas pointed out in a great piece, Jackson’s electrifying season did happen.

Baltimore will need to shore up their possibly overrated front seven and add a receiver or two to Jackson’s arsenal. There’s a good chance Lamar makes more strides in the passing game next season, similar to his Year 1-to-Year 2 jump.

Baltimore will likely regress some from their 14-2 mark, and they’ll have to deal with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have an elite defense and should see the return of Ben Roethlisberger next season, to help the offense.

And expect the Patriots to re-sign Tom Brady and supply him with a few offensive weapons for the dynasty’s home stretch. New England is not done yet.

Then there’s the two AFC finalists. After a season of blending in with a hobbled Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have won seven straight since beginning the year 6-4, with the defense being the story of their season in the second half. Mahomes and the offense sputtered for a bit, but they put on their best 2018 Chiefs impression in their win on Sunday.

Still, Kansas City must stay strong on defense, doing their best 2006 Colts impression, if they are going to go all the way.

But this season’s Titans have a heavy dose of 2007 and 2011 Giants to them. They are an underdog only to the outside world. After a 2-4 start to the season under Marcus Mariota, Tennessee is 9-3 under Tannehill, and Henry’s late-season run is reminiscent of the NFL’s older days, where superstar running backs could take over in January.

Despite allowing just 9.6 points per game since Week 11 prior to Sunday, the Chiefs have still been gashed for 4.9 yards per rush this season. Kansas City was without defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday, and even if Jones is good to go this Sunday, the Chiefs are left extremely vulnerable to another legendary Henry performance.

Dean Pees’ scheming versus Kansas City’s offense will loom large. As Baltimore’s linebackers coach & defensive coordinator from 2010-2017, Pees played his part in sometimes mitigating Rob Gronkowski, and sometimes Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, when limiting Brady and the Patriots.

In Tennessee, Pees has safeties Byard and Vaccaro playing like absolute madmen right now. There’s no way they’ll let Kelce beat them the way the Texans did.

They’ll force Mahomes to throw downfield to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. And of course, Kansas City can win that way, but things will be tougher at least.

The Titans have tough and competent cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson, who can do their part, even against the unbelievable amount of speed that Kansas City possesses. But the Titans will need a steady and consistent pass rush on Mahomes to win. That’s the Titans’ key to the game, where as Kansas City must find some way to limit Henry or they will be in a world of trouble.

In theory, the Titans have all the tools necessary to beat Kansas City. This is a tough matchup for the Chiefs, but Kansas City’s offense is a tough matchup for anyone. Mahomes will score more than Brady and Jackson, and I’m not sure the Titans will be able to keep up if the game is forced into Tannehill’s hands.

My early prognostication is Kansas City winning a semi-close contest.

*******

In Green Bay, it was apparent from the first drive that Aaron Rodgers was going to be on. And Davante Adams — eight catches, 160 yards, two touchdowns —  picked up where Travis Kelce left off in the game before him, baffling both man and zone coverages from the opposing team.

Despite a late Russell Wilson push that stalled on a costly Malik Turner drop, it was apparent from the start that the Seahawks lacked the personnel and health to go on a realistic Super Bowl run.

Wilson did what he could, but this was Rodgers’ time. The Packers legend completed just 16 passes, but threw for 243 yards and two scores with zero turnovers. His beauty of a downfield, first-down pass to Adams on 3rd-and-8 was ice cold in the clutch, and put the Seahawks hopes on ice.

Seattle never got the ball back, Green Bay won 28-23 after getting out to a 28-10 lead. And the defense continued to be rewarded for Green Bay’s rare, high-profile free-agent purchases of Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith on the edge, as each picked up two sacks.

But next, they’ll face a San Francisco 49ers squad that is left as the best and most talented bunch. Heck, they’ve been the best NFC team all year. Their most impressive beatdown of the season came at Green Bay’s expense.

A 37-8 49ers win over the Packers in the Bay area back in November, in which Rodgers was held to a staggering 3.2 yards per pass attempt, and was sacked five times.

After a month or two of so-so defensive play since that day, San Francisco finally has their complete defensive front seven.

Dee Ford is back after missing the past two months, and linebacker Kwon Alexander was activated back off injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle a few months back.

Having the unit back together was apparent immediately on Saturday, as the 49ers dominated the Vikings, 27-10, by beating them in just about every facet of the game.

San Francisco held top-five running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and picked him off once while holding his yards per attempt to just 5.9.

Despite Green Bay fielding one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, it would be surprising to see them come out on top in San Francisco. The 49ers should see a better performance by Jimmy Garoppolo — 11 for 19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — after he looked out of place trying to avoid Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, the league’s top cover linebacker, who could have picked him off three or four times if he had pro pass-catcher’s hands.

San Francisco leaned on it’s running back committee on Saturday, rushing for 186 yards on 47 carries. Tevin Coleman — 22 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns — was the lead man. He was brought in this offseason from Atlanta after breaking out with the Falcons under Kyle Shanahan’s watch, so Shanahan brought him to San Francisco.

If the 49ers run the ball this well versus Green Bay, the packers have little chance. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King may be able to slow down Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel in the passing game, but an affective 49ers run game should set up Garoppolo-to-George Kittle after the duo struggled in this past game.

Despite Kelce’s superb performance, Kittle is the NFL’s best tight end. He is at least tied with Kelce as it’s best in pass-catching, and is certainly the best blocking tight end in football. He’s the complete package. He’ll most certainly make some plays next week.

Green Bay will have to have a repeat performance by Rodgers and Adams, while also leaning on running back Aaron Jones to get San Francisco’s best-in-the-league pass rush off Rodgers’ back.

San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman has had a lot to say recently, but heck, he’s earned it, again. The 31-year-old had a pick on Saturday, and has reinvented himself as an older-but-smarter player with the 49ers.

Sherman covering Davante Adams will be the top player matchup of Conference Championship Sunday. If he can just slow down Adams (not even shut him out), things will be really tough on Green Bay. Jones, the running back, is likely their second-best pass catcher.

“The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” Sherman told The Athletic after the game. “You look at any stat, anything, and they just try to make it about other players. They never give me credit.”

“For all the people who think I’m in zone, it’s man,” Sherman said, continuing the lecture at his postgame presser. “I get tired of ‘oh man, he’s a zone corner.’ I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. Year in, year out. Whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 — unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there doing my job at a high level.”

There’s no doubt that the 49ers and Packers will play a closer game on Sunday than they did around Thanksgiving, but San Francisco is clear out-of-nowhere lead dog (although I’d like to toot my own horn in saying I had them winning the NFC West) that seems to pop up in the NFC almost every year. These uber-talented and fast teams seem to come up every so often.

Sherman was on the best of that category with the Legion-of-Boom era Seahawks. And now, he’s the vocal leader on Seattle’s rival, on the opposite end to the fascinating decade that was the 2010s.

There are plenty of smiles to go around in San Francisco, but they have one more game to win before a surprise trip to Super Bowl LIV. They should win it, in turn proving that a team with this amount of talent making it to the biggest game in their sport shouldn’t be all that surprising.

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