The Tennessee Titans Will Hand AFC West Back to Oakland Raiders
How can the Tennessee Titans earn a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs? How would the Oakland Raiders benefit from a Titans’ win?
Despite Thursday’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders can still go into the postseason as the AFC West champion with some help over the next three weeks.
The Raiders can reclaim their spot atop the division with a victory over the San Diego Chargers and a Tennessee Titans’ victory over the Chiefs. Heading into the current year, most analysts viewed the Titans as the worst team of the AFC South. Now, they’re scrapping for a division title in a tie with the Houston Texans at 7-6.
Second to only the New England Patriots in the AFC, the Chiefs have won eight of their last nine games. Plus, they’re coming off a mini-bye week with 10 days off. Typically, more preparation time for Chiefs head coach Andy Reid results in a victory.
However, the Titans match up well against the Chiefs for multiple reasons. Tennessee comes into Arrowhead Stadium armed with the No. 3 rushing offense against the league’s No. 27 run defense. Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio admitted to mistakenly ignoring the run in a critical moment during Thursday’s game, per San Francisco Chronicle reporter Vic Tafur:
We had three 3rd-and-1s during the game. The first two, we ran it and got it and, yeah, it would’ve made a lot of sense to run right there. As we look at it as a staff, we’re going, ‘Geez, what the heck?’
Ignoring the tendency to run the football won’t be a problem for the Titans. They’ve accumulated the second-most rush attempts through 13 contests—it’s their bread and butter for winning games.
The Chiefs could very well seal a close victory with an interception for a return, a punt return for a touchdown or simply capitalize off turnovers. However, the Titans have a clear-cut opportunity to pull off an upset and hand the AFC West back to the Raiders on Sunday. Here’s why.
Kansas City’s No. 27 Run Defense
Last week, the Raiders ran the ball efficiently against the Chiefs without their top-dollar interior offensive lineman, Kelechi Osemele. Running back Latavius Murray logged 22 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown on 4.68 yards per carry. As stated, even Jack Del Rio admitted that the team should have run the ball more given their success doing so.
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The Titans have rushed for 100-plus yards in all but three games during the season. On two occasions, they’ve crushed weaker run defenses with 200-plus yards on the ground. The combination of veteran DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry has been lethal, to say the least, behind a vastly improved offensive line.
In Week 14 against the Denver Broncos, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota completed 6-of-20 pass attempts for 88 yards in a victory. Tennessee’s ground attack, which accumulated 180 yards, limited the Broncos’ possessions and kept a struggling offense in the contest throughout.
Ironically, the Broncos defense closely resembles the Chiefs with a strong pass rush, a secondary that doesn’t allow big plays and a weak run defense. The Titans could use a similar run-heavy game plan to defeat another AFC West opponent.
Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) sits on field after an injury during the first half against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Derrick Johnson Out
In the first half of the Chiefs’ Thursday night victory, linebacker Derrick Johnson ruptured his left Achilles. He’ll miss the remainder of the season and leave a gaping hole in the intermediate pass coverage. It’s a tough blow to take for Chiefs fans considering how talented Johnson is when healthy and how that has contrasted with his inability to stay on the field.
However, you can’t overstate the negative effects this could have on the Kansas City defense as a whole. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as the best cover linebacker on the roster. Losing that key cog in the middle of the field leaves them susceptible in a way that Tennessee can exploit.
With Mariota, the Titans thrive with the short passing attack. Tight end Delanie Walker has recorded 51 receptions for 687 yards and six touchdowns as a prime receiving target. Running back DeMarco Murray has also been effective catching out of the backfield with 45 receptions for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
Tennessee’s game plan should focus on mixing power run plays with quick strikes to the middle of the field. At best, the approach forces a safety to leave the back end of the defense susceptible to a few deep throws on play action.
Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes against the Oakland Raiders during a NFL football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Forcing Alex Smith to Use His Arm for Victory
Through 13 contests, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has 12 touchdown passes. The Titans have the third-best run defense in the league, which puts more pressure on Smith to win the game with his arm. It’s the ideal situation for Tennessee’s defense.
The Chiefs don’t ask their quarterback to engineer several touchdown drives. Smith has only thrown multiple touchdown passes in three games, one of which happened in garbage time during a blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Titans’ stingy interior defense should force a decent matchup between the secondary and the Chiefs’ No. 23 scoring pass offense.
Tennessee’s pass defense has struggled in yards allowed, but the unit doesn’t hand out free passes into the end zone. Moreover, the Titans pass rush has been formidable throughout the year and the Chiefs offensive line has been inconsistent at best. Dick LeBeau, a well-respected defensive coordinator, will find himself in a winnable chess match with Reid on Sunday.