There were two minutes left on the game clock when the miracle happened.
After trailing 21-3 at the half, Tennessee had finally pulled in front of the Chiefs, 22-21. They had a first-and-10 on Kansas City’s 44-yard line, and just needed to find some way to run off the last two minutes to advance to the Divisional Round. Quarterback Marcus Mariota handed the ball to Derrick Henry running to the left side where they had been dominating Kansas City all night.
And then the ball was free.
Marcus Peters had bolted through the line, hitting Henry while still in the backfield. And there was the football. Before anyone could truly grasp the enormity of what had just occurred, Derrick Johnson – ball in hands – was racing toward the end zone, as Arrowhead Stadium rose in unison to cheer him on.
With Sean McDonough’s voice cracking in the background, Johnson scored the touchdown, and the streak was over. After having lost five consecutive home playoff games, an act of God had delivered the Chiefs from another bitter disappointment. For about five minutes, delirium reined in Kansas City.
It was, of course, a mirage – and maybe something more. It was a microcosm of the Chiefs’ season. At the very first glance at the replay, it was evident that Henry was down. Peters pried the ball out of his hands after he was already clearly down.
The Kansas City Chiefs were the early story of the NFL – bolting out of the gate 5-0 (a spell during which they scored 164 points). Football was very easy for them, then.
That, too, was a mirage.
Two plays after the fumble that wasn’t, Tennessee was running left again with Henry the ball carrier. It was third-and-10, so a stop here would get the Chiefs the ball with about 1:45 to go. As Titan tight end Delanie Walker declined to block Kansas City end Frank Zombo, Frank found himself in the perfect position to drop Henry for a loss. Noting the situation, Mariotta threw the block himself. It wasn’t bone-jarring, but it was enough the get Henry around the edge for a clinching 22-yard run.
The rest was all kneel-downs in the Titans’ 22-21 victory (gamebook).
Were the Titans lucky? They were. Quite lucky. The first ten points they scored were gifts.
With 2:41 left in the first half. Mariotta was sacked by Johnson, losing the ball in the process. The football rolled to the feet of Justin Houston, who clearly recovered. Mystifyingly, though, the fumble was waived off and Mariotta was said to have had his forward progress stopped – the single most bizarre application of that concept that I have ever seen in an NFL game.
Tennessee kicked a field goal on the next play.
The Titans’ first touchdown was even stranger.
Starting on their own 9-yard line, Tennessee took the opening kickoff of the second have 85 yards in 14 plays. Now, they had third-and-goal from the Kansas City six-yard line. Mariotta dropped back to pass, but was flushed from the pocket. Scrambling to his left, I believe he decided to run with the ball, but at the very last second decided to throw it into the end zone.
As he was in the act of crossing the line of scrimmage, he flung the ball. Chief defensive back Darrelle Revis, closing on the play, leaped and batted the ball out of the air – seemingly forcing a fourth-down. But the ricocheting football deflected perfectly back to Mariotta, who plucked it out of the air, and, under a full head of steam, dove into the end zone for a touchdown. It is believed to be only the second time in the history of the NFL that anyone has thrown a touchdown pass to himself.
So Kansas City had some adversity to overcome. I believe that has been a constant through almost all of what has now become a six-game home playoff losing streak. A bad bounce, a bad call, a tough injury, and down go the Chiefs. And this, I think, speaks to one of the prime concerns in Kansas City. This is a team that suffers from a comparative lack of toughness.
Even after the conclusion of this game, it’s entirely debatable whether Tennessee is, in fact, the better team. But what is beyond dispute – the one truth that was re-emphasized with every thundering run from Derrick Henry – is that Tennessee is clearly the tougher team, both emotionally and physically.
While the adversity that Tennessee endured was almost entirely self-inflicted, they were the team that was resilient enough to fight back. As soon as the tide of the game turned against the Chiefs, they were unable to halt the slide. As Kansas City looks to improve this offseason, they would be advised to assess the toughness factor.
As to the particulars of this game, Tennessee’s game plan spelled out where the Chiefs are most vulnerable. Of Henry’s 23 rushes in the game, 12 were up the middle and 10 were to the left of the formation. He ran to the right just once.
They ran repeatedly at Frank Zombo who was dominated by left tackle Taylor Lewan. Even more impressive was left guard Quinton Spain who became something of a personal nightmare to linebacker Reggie Ragland. Henry had 14 runs of 4-yards or more. During those 14 runs, Spain threw critical blocks against linebackers in 7 of them – 6 of those against Ragland.
Last Saturday, the Titans did a thorough job of exposing the Chiefs’ weaknesses. It will be interesting to see how they respond.