KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs can clinch an AFC playoff berth with a win Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium against the Tennessee Titans, a team defying the odds with its own playoff ambitions and posing a tougher than expected challenge for the red-hot home team.
“They’re hotter than a firecracker right now,” coach Andy Reid said of the Titans.
The Chiefs (10-3) own a three-game winning streak with wins in eight of their last nine games. The Titans (7-6) after a 1-3 start now stand tied with the Houston Texans for the best record in the AFC South. They have won three of their last four, including a 13-10 last week against Denver.
Tennessee climbed into the playoff race with a high-octane run game putting up 144.5 yards per game on the ground. The Titans rely on avoiding turnovers and capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
That philosophy runs directly into the teeth of the Chiefs defense, which stands tied for the league lead in takeaways and ranks fifth the league in red zone defense.
The rise of the Titans rests largely with the emergence of second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota. His development into a reliable dual-threat quarterback who protects the football meshes well with an offense featuring an elite running back in DeMarco Murray and an athletic tight end, Delanie Walker.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said that combination makes the Titans a consistent scoring threat.
“Those three things are going to allow you to be pretty good in any area of the field,” Sutton said. “I think over the last five weeks, statistically they are pretty close to the top of our league in yards and points.”
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said the Chiefs play complementary football, with offense, defense and special teams feeding off one another.
“They’re scoring in different fashions with all three phases helping to win these games,” Mularkey said, “not making a lot of mistakes, very disciplined. You can tell they’re very well coached.”
A key to the Chiefs’ ability to stop the Titans’ run game rests with second-year linebacker Ramik Wilson. Wilson takes the spot vacated by Derrick Johnson, who ruptured his left Achilles tendon against the Oakland Raiders. The team placed Johnson on season-ending injured reserve Saturday. Defensive lineman David King earned a promotion from the practice squad.
Wilson expects to miss Johnson’s leadership, but says the veteran helped equip him to take over in his absence.
“He’s been preparing me and and grooming me for this moment over the weeks I’ve been out there,” Wilson said. “I’ve been making all the calls and doing everything when I’ve been out there. He’s been preparing me for this moment just in case something happens to him.”
The Chiefs have several options at filling in the spot along Wilson in the team’s base 3-4 defense. Linebackers D.J. Alexander, Terrance Smith and Frank Zombo may see time in the spot. The Chiefs also expect to rely on personnel packages heavy on safety support with Daniel Sorensen and Ron Parker filling in at times.
Reid feels confident in his young linebacker squad to fill the breach left by Johnson.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of guys and different things we can do in there,” Reid said. “We should be good, good to roll.”
The biggest battle at Arrowhead Stadium may not be the Chiefs versus the Titans, but rather everyone against Old Man Winter. The National Weather Service forecasts a low temperature of minus 4 degrees at 9 a.m. for the bravest of tailgaters.
The forecast projects a temperature of 5 degrees by kickoff with wind chills dipping near minus 20. That would be the third-coldest game in Chiefs history.
The last time the team played in temperatures that cold came in the season finale of the 1983 season. The Chiefs beat Denver 48-17, holding rookie John Elway to a quarterback rating of 11.9, the third-worst of his Hall of Fame career.
Reid doesn’t believe the cold temperatures pose much of a hindrance for his team.
“They’ve been practicing in it, so they are alright,” Reid said. “They just go do their thing. They’re the ones moving, we’re all sitting.”