Tennessee Titans (6) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (2) – Sunday, January 19, 2020, 3:05 p.m. EST

In their unlikely run to the AFC Championship, the Tennessee Titans have beaten three divisional leaders over the past three weeks, relying heavily on the rushing attack and excellent defensive play. This Sunday, the Titans will attempt to beat a fourth divisional winner as they face the Kansas City Chiefs.

Quarterbacks

In 2019, the Titans’ quarterbacks have posted an above-average OSM 28.7 for the season, primarily due to Ryan Tannehill’s performance during the regular season, finishing as the top quarterback with an overall OSM of 34.4.

Through the post-season, however, Tannehill’s been an afterthought. In the wild card win against the New England Patriots, he only attempted 15 passes and ended the game with an OSM of 19.3. In Sunday’s divisional game he was limited again, only attempting 14 passes which disqualified him from OSM grading.

So, what can we expect from Tannehill and the Titans in this weekend’s AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, whose defense is only allowing an average OSM of 19.7 to opposing quarterbacks?

The last time these two teams played, in Week 10 of the regular season,  Tannehill had his 2nd highest OSM of the season at 45.6 in the 35-32 win over the Chiefs. Though he was limited in that game as well with just 19 attempts, his intended air yards were the highest they had been for the entire season at 13.1 yards. It was also his second-most aggressive game, throwing the ball into tight coverage 32% of the time, while still completing over 68% of his passes – nearly 8% higher than expected.

These numbers are important to note for the Chiefs defense as well. Tannehill’s OSM against the Chiefs was the highest allowed by Kansas City during the season. The intended air yards were the highest of all competition as well, resulting in the highest completed air yards allowed at 9.7. Although, not a factor in OSM, the Chiefs also gave up a season high quarterback ranking of 133.9 to Tannehill.

Don’t be surprised to see a similar game plan for the Titans in the AFC Championship with limited attempts for Tannehill, an average of 10-15 yards downfield. But to be successful against the Chiefs, Tannehill will have to be aggressive with his throws and get a little help from his receivers to ensure a high completion rate.

When quarterbacks have had a less than expected completion rate, the Chiefs are 10-0. They’re 3-4 when allowing a higher than expected completion rate. In their four losses, they’ve given up a 68% completion rate compared to 60% in their thirteen wins.

Though Patrick Mahomes threw for over 300 yards and five touchdowns on Sunday, he was not the biggest factor in the Chiefs improbable comeback win against the Houston Texans per OSM. He finished the game with an OSM of 16.3, which ranked last among all quarterbacks playing in the divisional round (excluding Tannehill, who did not qualify for OSM).

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes’ intended air yards were only 6.1, two yards below average. And, although he completed 66% of his passes, his expected completion rate was 5% higher, at 71%.

Mahomes may have a bigger impact in this matchup against Tennessee. His average OSM for the season is 21.6 and the Titans are allowing 22.0 on average. The last time these two teams met, Mahomes threw the ball 50 times for 446 yards, both season highs, and finished with an OSM of 24.4 in the loss.

Although it’s great for fantasy, it would be wise for Mahomes and the Chiefs to consider quality over quantity against Tennessee. The Titans are 10-1 when opposing quarterbacks have more than 35 attempts and just 1-6 when they throw less than 35 times. Chiefs fans should hope they don’t fall behind early like they did last week or they’ll likely have to rely on the passing game more than they should.

Running backs

This is ramping up to be another big week for Derrick Henry. He ranked as the best back in the league this season with an overall OSM of 21.3 and, even though the Chiefs are allowing a below-average OSM of 12.3 per game, Henry’s expected OSM of 16.4 is in line with expectations for both playoff games to date.

He’s been on a tear the past three weeks, dating back to Week 17 of the regular season, amassing over 180 yards in each game. The other time he ran for over 180 yards? Week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

In eight games in which Henry ran for 100 yards or more, his efficiency (actual yards run in order to gain 1 yard from scrimmage) was astounding at 3.0 on average, compared to 4.5 otherwise. But the Chiefs aren’t going to stop him by crowding the box.

In his top three games where Henry’s OSM was over 30.0, including in last week’s divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens, teams put eight men in the box 69% of the time. Yet, he still managed to rush for over five yards per carry in those three games, for nearly 400 yards total.

While the Titans will try to limit Tannehill’s throws by feeding the ball to Henry, the Chiefs will try to limit his rush attempts to less than 20 by controlling the clock and forcing him to run laterally without safety help. That’s realistically the only way to keep him from being an impact in the game, as his efficiency improves under pressure and over time.

On the other side of the field, don’t expect a ton from the running backs on the ground. The Chiefs backs are averaging an OSM of 12.3, about a point below average for the league. The Titans aren’t exactly stellar at preventing running backs from being impactful, allowing an average OSM of 13.4, but it’s likely not going to move the needle much for the Chiefs.

Reason being? That 13.4 average drops to 9.8 for running backs whose overall OSM is subpar. This is primarily due to forcing more runs to the outside, without relying on eight men in the box, worsening running efficiency from 3.9 to 4.9 and average yards per attempt from 4.5 to 3.5.

This weekend may be the perfect time to give LeSean McCoy some carries if he’s available. Outside of his Week 2 performance against the Oakland Raiders, McCoy has had an average efficiency of 3.3, compared to Damien Williams’ 4.3, and a 5.5 yards per carry average in those games. His overall OSM comes in at 12.0 for the year ranking him below average, 31st overall, but 14 spots ahead of Damien Williams.

Using McCoy in the AFC Championship more than Williams may force the Titans to put eight men in the box against the Chiefs on more occasions, which they’ve done 10% more often against running backs averaging an efficiency of 3.5 or better. This should help open up the passing game a little more for Mahomes.

Don’t expect a ton of rushes though – the Chiefs have not had a back carry the ball 20 or more times in a game yet this year. However, they are 11-1 when at least one of their backs eclipses 10+ carries.

Pass catchers

The Titans and Chiefs should get similar production from their pass catchers in the AFC Championship, though slightly in favor of the Chiefs. Tennessee has averaged an OSM of 35.8 this season, 3rd best among playoff teams, while Kansas City came in 2nd at 36.1, just below the San Francisco 49ers.

Defensively, the Titans have allowed the 3rd highest OSM to opposing pass catchers at 33.5, while the Chiefs are in the middle of the pack, allowing 32.2 on average.

Tennessee has not targeted their tight ends as much as other teams, especially when compared to Kansas City. Since Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7 for the Titans, in only four games has a tight end been targeted 5+ times and only once since Week 10. But that’s not to say they haven’t been useful.

Jonnu Smith has ranked in the top ten for OSM three times. He’s tied third overall for yards of separation and the second overall catch rate at 80% for the year, behind only Kyle Rudolph. Perhaps his most impressive trait is his ability to obtain yards after the catch. During the regular season, he averaged 8.4 yards after catch, 2.9 yards above expectation which led all tight ends in the league.

Expect Smith to have a limited, but important role. The Chiefs defense has been rather pedestrian against opposing tight-ends, which may bode well for Smith. However, Tannehill spreads the ball to all of his receivers, and tight ends typically fall below 5+ targets each when he makes less than 30 attempts in a game.

Don’t expect the Titans’ wide receivers to fare so well. A.J. Brown will likely be the most targeted receiver in the game and for good reason. He’s leading the league in yards after catch (8.8) and above expectation (4.9) and finished the regular season with 100+ yards in four of the last six games.

However, the Chiefs have only allowed one receiver to gain more than 100 yards in a game (DeAndre Hopkins in last week’s Divisional Round game). They’ve also only allowed two receivers to get over 7.5 yards after catch for the entire season – both Chiefs wins – along with an average 0.0 yards above expectation for the 30 wide receivers that qualified for OSM against the Chiefs.

The last time these two teams played, Mahomes spread the ball to multiple receivers. Three wide receivers had 5+ targets, including Tyreek Hill who was targeted 19 times in the Week 10 loss to the Titans. That was the second-most targets for a wide receiver in a single game this season (Julio Jones, 20 targets in Week 15).

If the Chiefs go with the same game plan, with a majority of targets in Hill’s direction, look for him to improve his catch rate. In the three Chiefs losses (that he’s played in), Hill’s catch rate is 58%. It’s 75% when they win.

It’s also worth noting, his targets are limited to under seven when the Chiefs have won, compared to 13 when they’ve lost. In this case, look for Sammy Watkins to get a number of looks. His best attribute is yards after catch, which is 5.9 overall for the season, although that may not be a huge factor in the outcome of the game as the Titans have won all but one game in which they’ve allowed a receiver to gain more than 5.9 yards after catch.

It goes without question that Travis Kelce is one of the best tight ends in the league, if not the best. Unless the Titans make some drastic changes on defense, he should have another monster game this week. His best OSM grade of the season (48.9) came against the Titans when the Chiefs played them in Week 10. It was also the worst OSM grade allowed by the Titans during the 2019 season.

In that game, Kelce had a season-best 3.9 yards of separation and caught all seven targets for a 100% catch rate. In all other games, the Titans only allowed 2.8 yards of separation and a 66% completion rate.

Tennessee typically matches up well against tight ends, even when allowing a higher than average OSM. They are undefeated when a tight end is targeted more than five times in a game. Although it’s unlikely the Chiefs will reduce the number of balls thrown in the AFC Championship to the number one targeted tight end in the league, the Chiefs will be better off by spreading the ball around against the Titans.

Keys to the game

The Titans should reach an average OSM of 24.6 to the Kansas City Chiefs’ 23.1 in the AFC Championship. Although Mahomes will likely have better boxscore stats than Tannehill, the Titans’ quarterback will be more responsible for his team’s production. Though the Chiefs will try to limit his carries, Henry should have another big game for the Titans, as should Kelce for the Chiefs.

This game will likely be determined by ball control and time of possession. Look for the Titans to run the ball often between the tackles as the Chiefs attempt to force Henry to the outside. Henry’s average yards per carry shouldn’t be impacted, but his efficiency will. He’ll tire sooner and the Titans may be forced to limit his carries later in the game.

Unless the Chiefs fall behind early, look for them to have a more balanced game plan. Williams and McCoy should split carries and Mahomes should have a number of short throws in order to extend drives and keep possession of the ball.

This is a tough one to call and is dependent on how drastic the game plans differ from Week 10. After seeing how the Chiefs managed a comeback last week though, down 24-0 to the Houston Texans in the 1st quarter, it’s hard to imagine Mahomes and company couldn’t do it again if needed.

The big question mark is whether or not Tannehill can produce results similar to what he did during the regular season if the Chiefs are able to control Henry at the line of scrimmage. And, perhaps an even bigger question – can Reid and Mahomes lead the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years?

Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs 25, Tennessee Titans 19

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