The Chiefs collapsed in the second half against the Titans. What happened?
The Chiefs entered the playoffs having returned to their stellar play that had them 5-0 and labeled as a top contender in the AFC.
Kansas City closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak and were heavily favored to defeat the Titans, who came in having lost three of their final four contests. And although they held a commanding 21-3 lead at halftime, the Chiefs employed a second-half collapse, in which they didn’t scratch a point, en route to a 22-21 loss.
Following a surprising end to a streaky season, let’s examine what exactly went wrong against Tennessee, what the most substantial issue was for the Chiefs this year, and what moves the front office should make in an attempt to right the ship for next season.
What Happened Against Tennessee:
As they headed into the locker room with an 18-point lead at the half, the Chiefs were obviously feeling good about their chances to secure a victory and advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. Alex Smith was dialed in, having completed 19 of 23 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns, while their defense was solid in limiting Marcus Mariota to just 81 passing yards and an interception.
The only concern was their Pro Bowl tight end, Travis Kelce, being forced out of the game with a concussion, following a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit by Titans’ safety Jonathan Cyprien that left him wobbly and unbalanced. However, the renewed combination of Mariota and Derrick Henry proved too much for Kansas City’s defense during Tennessee’s second-half triumph.
Following the halftime intermission, Mariota recorded for 124 yards and two touchdowns through the air (one to himself after a deflection by Chiefs’ cornerback Darrelle Revis), while adding 40 yards rushing on just four carries. Henry was also dominant, rushing for a career-high 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries (6.8 yards per carry).
Offensively, the Chiefs were red-hot in the first half, but the inability to generate any offense in the second half after Kelce’s concussion allowed the Titans to come back. The loss of Kelce proved to be a severe blow, as Tennessee was able to solely key in on Tyreek Hill, forcing Alex Smith to trust unproven wideouts and tight ends.
Without Kelce, Kansas City crossed the 50-yard line just twice, one resulting from a muffed punt. The Titans’ ability to silence Hill following Kelce’s injury, limiting him to just one catch for five yards after the half, revealed a huge weakness in this Chiefs’ offense: lack of receiver depth.
On the opening drive of the second half, Tennessee was trailing 21-3 and had a third and goal upcoming from the Chiefs’ six-yard line. Mariota took the snap, escaped pressure to his left, and threw a pass on the run intended for rookie wideout Corey Davis; however, the pass was batted down by Darrelle Revis and into the hands of Mariota, who then took it into the endzone for a touchdown. Just as crazy as it sounds.
The touchdown capped off a 15-play, 91-yard drive that took up over eight minutes of the third quarter and trimmed Kansas City’s lead to 11. It was also a key momentum-builder for a Titans’ offense that had struggled to move the ball for the entire first half.
Had they been forced to settle for a field goal on this drive, Tennessee would have been chasing a 15-point deficit with just under a quarter-and-a-half remaining. And although Alex Smith and company couldn’t generate any offense, this would have required the Titans to score twice and convert on a two-point conversion. For a team that didn’t even attempt a conversion all season, and failed on their two attempts against the Chiefs, this would not have been a recipe for a comeback victory.
Derrick Henry: 23 Carries, Two Catches, 191 Total Yards, One Touchdown
Henry gashed Kansas City’s defense, constantly finding running holes en route to 156 rushing yards and a touchdown, while also catching two passes for additional 35 yards. The Chiefs didn’t have an answer for Henry’s crafty style of running, as he often bounced carries outside to pick up positive yardage. There were several occurrences where Kansas City had Henry bottled up in the backfield, but he was able to escape for big gains.
More importantly, Henry picked up two key first downs on the Titans’ final drive, which allowed them to run out the clock and seal the win. Henry ran for 34 yards on four carries on this drive, and his ability to pick up large chunks of yards while staying in bounds was crucial and had to be tough for Chiefs’ fans to watch.
The Biggest Issue Of The Season:
Receiving Threats Outside Of Tyreek Hill And Travis Kelce
Although the Chiefs’ offense proved to be unstoppable at times when both Hill and Kelce were on the field, Saturday’s game against the Titans displayed the lack of depth behind these two. After Kelce was forced out of the game, Kansas City’s passing attack essentially disappeared, as Alex Smith threw for just 33 yards in the second half. And while having two 1,000-yard receivers on a team is nothing short of ideal, it’s also comforting when a team has options behind them; the Chiefs do not.
Outside of these two, their next best option is fourth-year wideout Albert Wilson, who finished third on the team in yards with 554. After Wilson, it’s rookie running back Kareem Hunt (455 yards), followed by back-up tight end, Demetrius Harris (224 yards).
With the Chiefs being thin at the wide receiver and tight end position, teams could often key in on Hill and Kelce and force Smith to target other options that aren’t as reliable and sure-handed. We saw this not only in their loss to the Titans, but the Giants, Bills, Steelers, and Cowboys were also able to limit Smith’s targets to some extent.
Plan for the Offseason
1. Re-sign Alex Smith
Although he is 33 years old, and there’s been a lot of skepticism about him hitting the open market in favor of Patrick Mahomes, Alex Smith had arguably his best season in the NFL. Smith set career highs in passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (26), and quarterback rating (104.7), while posting his highest yards per pass attempt average (8.00) of his career. The Chiefs need to keep Smith around for at least another season while Mahomes continues to develop into a full-time starter.
2. Go After A Free Agent Wide Receiver
Kansas City needs another proven wideout to play across from Tyreek Hill, and with several big-name receivers becoming free agents this off-season, the Chiefs need to make a strong push to sign one. Some names include Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Terrelle Pryor, Mike Wallace, and Marqise Lee. If the Chiefs can secure one of these receiving options, their offense could take that extra step to get them over the hump.
3. Replace Tamba Hali at OLB
Although widely known as one of the most well-respected players in Kansas City, and not to mention, one of the best pass-rushers in Chiefs history, Hali is not the same player, at 34 years old, who made five consecutive pro bowls (2011-15). Injuries limited him to just five games this season, in which he recorded just one tackle and zero sacks. Whether it’s in the upcoming draft or free agency, the Chiefs need another outside pass-rusher to pair with Justin Houston. Potential free agent replacements include Nigel Bradham, Jonathan Casillas, Connor Barwin, and Trent Murphy. If Kansas City can sign or draft a quality replacement, they could have a dominant pass rush.
4. Pursue a Cornerback in Free Agency
The Chiefs need another quality cornerback to accompany All-Pro Marcus Peters. Injuries and inconsistent play prompted Kansas City to sign 32-year-old Darrelle Revis. Although he’s been selected to the Pro Bowl seven times, questions surround Revis on whether or not he has enough gas left in the tank to be a serviceable corner in this league. If the Chiefs were to add somebody like Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson, or Bashaud Breeland in free agency, their secondary could take a huge leap forward for next season.
The Chiefs had a streaky, up-and-down season, and although they closed the season well and were expected to challenge the Patriots in the divisional round, they were unable to get past the Titans. If they want to take the next step in potentially contending for a Super Bowl, they need to address areas of need in the offseason. If they can resolve the four issues listed above, they could have a good chance to hoist the Super Bowl LIII trophy.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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