The AFC divisional round was total chaos this weekend. On Saturday, the top-seeded Ravens were bounced from the bracket in a blowout loss to the Titans, who went up 28-6 in the third quarter and barely looked back. The Texans followed Sunday and seemed to be setting up an AFC South rubber match in the conference title game, but the No. 2-seeded Chiefs went down 24-0 and ran off a staggering 51-7 run to finish the game.

What happened? Why were the Titans able to hold on and beat the Ravens, but the Texans held their lead for a matter of minutes before the Chiefs stormed back? Where did the Chiefs succeed in their comeback where the Ravens did not? Are there any more takeaways we can glean in advance of the AFC Championship Game?

I’ll run through those questions and arguments below. I’ll focus mostly on the AFC but will sneak in a couple of NFC playoff elements from this weekend:

Jump to a section:
Build a game plan that works for you
Field position matters
Dominate in the red zone
Win on fourth down
Fix the drops … during the game
Did the defense copy from the right source material?
Take advantage of the punt penalty trick
How healthy is the other team’s key offensive weapon?

Build a game plan that works for your talent

Saturday was a treasure for people who argue that the NFL has prematurely abandoned the run. In the afternoon, the 49ers closed out their win over the Vikings by calling for runs on 30 of their final 36 offensive plays. The Titans followed suit in the nightcap by running the ball 37 times for 217 yards, with Ryan Tannehill going just 7-of-14 passing for 88 yards. In the process, Tannehill became the first quarterback since Terry Bradshaw in 1974 to win two playoff games in the same postseason while failing to throw for 100 yards in either victory.

Sunday flipped things back the other way. The Chiefs scored seven consecutive touchdowns to launch their comeback, and while Patrick Mahomes scrambled for 56 yards, Andy Reid handed the ball to running back Damien Williams a total of five times for 6 yards during that stretch. Williams ran in two scores, but the traditional running game was strictly a short-yardage option for Kansas City.

And in the Sunday night game, the Packers nearly blew their halftime lead after giving the ball to Aaron Jones 21 times for just 62 yards while Aaron Rodgers was averaging an even 9.0 yards per attempt. With Jones failing to move the ball, the Packers needed two late Rodgers completions on third down to seal their victory over the Seahawks.

Overreacting to the extremes presented by the Chiefs and Titans seems naive. The Titans have built a good offense around an excellent line and a back with rare athleticism in Derrick Henry, who can absorb more contact than just about anybody in football. It would be foolish for a team without those weapons to insist on running the ball nearly 70% of the time on offense. And likewise, the Chiefs have terrifying talent across the board in their passing game. Every time they handed the ball off while the game was competitive was a gift to the Texans.

Here’s my simple argument: No, the 49ers and Titans running the ball up and down the field is not a sign that we need to get back to the offensive ecosystems of the 1970s. We know passing is more efficient and effective than running, even if there are still times where running is valuable. There’s an equilibrium point for how frequently each team should choose to run or pass the ball, and it seems meaningfully dependent on the personnel those teams have. The Titans should play like the Titans, and the Chiefs should play like the Chiefs.


Field position matters

The biggest reason the Titans were able to get out to an early lead and the Chiefs were able to come back so quickly is simple. Field position over the course of multiple possessions almost never gets mentioned during broadcasts or in postgame commentaries from coaches and players, but it’s a lot easier to score on a short field than it is on a long one.

The Titans scored four touchdowns during their win Saturday night. Three of those drives started on Baltimore’s side of the field, with the Titans cashing in on possessions of 20 yards (after they recovered a Lamar Jackson fumble), 35 yards (a Jackson interception off a Mark Andrews drop, with a curious penalty tacked on for Jackson’s tackle attempt at the end of the play), and 45 yards (the first failed fourth-and-1 opportunity).

The Titans had one drive top 50 yards all night, and that 81-yard drive was essentially the 66-yard Henry run where he broke out of Matthew Judon‘s grasp on third-and-1 and romped through the Ravens’ defense. Mike Vrabel’s offense was able to parlay those short fields and one huge play from Henry into 28 points and a huge lead.

They also repeatedly forced the Ravens to go the length of the field to score. Baltimore had 11 possessions, each starting inside its 26-yard line, with 74 or more yards to go for a touchdown. Jackson & Co. had six drives of 50 yards or more during the game, but those six opportunities generated just 12 points.

Six Ravens possessions — including all three of their fourth-quarter opportunities — ended on the Tennessee side of the field without any points. To put that in context, there has been only one playoff game over the past 20 years in which an offense made it to the opposing side of the field and failed to score more than six times.

The Titans made the Ravens claw and march the length of the field over and over again to have any hope of getting back into the game. The Texans made it much easier for the Chiefs. After Houston kicked a field goal to go up 24-0 with just under 11 minutes to go in the second quarter, the Chiefs’ next three drives didn’t need to go far:

  • A long kickoff return from Mecole Hardman gave Kansas City the ball at the Texans’ 42-yard line, and the Chiefs scored two plays later.

  • A failed fake punt gave the Chiefs the ball at the Texans’ 33-yard line, and they scored four plays later.

  • A fumbled kickoff by DeAndre Carter gave the Chiefs the ball at the Texans’ 6-yard line, and they scored three plays later.

Kansas City was able to turn nine plays and 81 yards into 21 second-quarter points, getting it back into the game in a matter of minutes. The Ravens, as an example, had a 14-play, 93-yard drive in the second quarter, but time ran out and they kicked a field goal. Mistakes by the Texans made it easier for the Chiefs to launch their comeback. The Titans didn’t make those same mistakes.


Dominate in the red zone

It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that the Titans are in the AFC Championship Game because of what they’ve done in the red zone. In the wild-card round, they held the Patriots to one touchdown on three trips, including what The Boston Globe’s Nora Princiotti noted was the first time a Brady-led Patriots team had ever failed to convert a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line into a touchdown during the postseason.

The Ravens were the second-best red zone offense in football during the regular season, scoring touchdowns on 67.2% of their trips inside the 20. On Saturday night, though, the Titans allowed Baltimore to score once on four red zone possessions, with the Ravens kicking a field goal and turning the ball over on downs twice. They would typically turn four red zone trips into about 22 points. The Titans held them to nine.

Yielding two touchdowns on seven red zone possessions on defense is one thing. What the Titans are doing in the red zone on offense, though, is virtually unprecedented. I mentioned this in my playoff preview, but after the Titans promoted Tannehill to the starting job for Week 7, they scored on 86.7% of their red zone possessions, which was the best rate in football by a significant margin. The Bucs were in second place over that time frame at 71.9%, and they were closer to 16th place than they were to Tennessee.

It makes sense that tackling Henry would be a tall order in the red zone, but the Titans were converting only 53.3% of their red zone trips into scores before Tannehill took over and were at 56.5% over the second half of 2018. History also tells us that red zone performance is wildly inconsistent from year to year, suggesting it’s more randomness and a small sample than anything else.

When you look at the other top red zone offenses over that same 11-week span going back through 2001, they weren’t able to keep their dominance up in the postseason. The 10 top red zone offenses between Weeks 7 and 17 over that time frame converted nearly 76% of their red zone trips into touchdowns during the regular season, but against stiffer competition in the playoffs, those same offenses only scored touchdowns on just over 61% of their red zone trips.

The Titans are supposed to regress to the mean in the red zone. They’ll get to that as soon as they stop running people over. They have scored on all five of their red zone possessions this postseason, going 2-of-2 against the Patriots and 3-of-3 against the Ravens. The margin of error against the Patriots was razor-thin before the pick-six with several seconds left to go; if the Pats had scored on their first-and-goal opportunity from the 1-yard line and the Titans hadn’t, Tennessee wouldn’t have been playing this weekend.

There were at least some signs that the Titans were lucky to come away with touchdowns on all three of their red zone trips. They scored on third down on each of their three tries, including a third-and-12 in which Jonnu Smith both made an incredible catch and managed to get his butt down before falling out of bounds with inches to spare. It’s hard to reconcile being unstoppable in the red zone with waiting until third down to prove the point.

There’s no arguing that offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has some tricks up his sleeve, though. Against the Ravens, the Titans scored on a halfback pass from Henry to Corey Davis and on a Tannehill speed option keeper. Teams are understandably terrified of Henry running them over near the goal line, which is creating opportunities for other members of the offense. It seems unsustainable, but the Titans haven’t had any trouble maintaining their dominance so far.

The Chiefs also left no doubt with their red zone performance Sunday. Andy Reid’s offense took eight trips into the red zone and scored seven touchdowns before adding a late field goal up big in the fourth quarter. Going back through 2001, no team had previously ever scored seven touchdowns in the red zone in a single playoff game.

Mahomes & Co. scored all 51 of their points in the red zone. Given their success rates in the regular season, the Chiefs and their 20th-ranked red zone offense would have expected to score just under 39 points on their eight red zone possessions. In a game that ended 51-31, a less successful performance from the Chiefs in the red zone would have made it far easier for the Texans to come back after blowing their lead so quickly.


Win on fourth down

The two victors on the AFC side of the bracket succeeded on key fourth downs in different ways. The Titans made huge plays by stopping the Ravens on defense. A Baltimore offense that had gone 8-of-8 on fourth-and-1 attempts during the regular season failed to convert on a pair of fourth-and-1 attempts in the upset loss. Both analytics and the Ravens’ offensive skill set supported going for it on those fourth-and-short opportunities, but the two failures dropped Baltimore’s win expectancy by a combined 15.6%.

The Ravens failed to execute on both plays. On the first fourth-and-1 attempt, they ran quarterback power and simply didn’t get a helmet on linebacker David Long (51). He is totally untouched and has a free gap to shoot when Jackson cuts back and tries to turn upfield, with the Titans stuffing the play in the backfield.

Later in the game, the Ravens ran one of the weirdest sneak attempts I’ve ever seen. There’s an unmanned gap between the center and right guard, and while Wesley Woodyard (59) is lurking over that gap several yards off the line of scrimmage, it seems almost obvious for Jackson to try to sneak there. The offensive line actually collapses the defensive line up front, but Jackson tries to go all the way around end to get the first down, runs into defenders, cuts back and then gets swallowed up by defenders. Far be it from me to tell Jackson what he should do with the ball in his hands, but it’s fair to say that whatever he was trying to do didn’t work.

The Chiefs succeeded with the help of Houston coach Bill O’Brien, whose two fourth-down decisions are going to loom large in the psyche of this franchise until the Texans make it out of the divisional round. Losing to the Chiefs would have been disappointing, but blowing a 24-0 lead in a matter of minutes — and attributing it to a pair of ill-advised and/or unorthodox fourth-down calls — could end up as the dominant memory of the O’Brien era when it does end in Houston.

Let’s take them one at a time. No, there’s not a good argument for kicking a field goal up 21-0 on fourth-and-1 from the 13-yard line. We can successfully bury the argument that you don’t want to give the Chiefs momentum if they stop you on fourth down deep into the earth, given that the Texans kicked a field goal and the Chiefs roared back anyway. You shouldn’t be settling for points because you’re already up by a bunch; we all know the Chiefs are capable of catching on fire at a moment’s notice, and if O’Brien had faith in his defense, he should have noticed that the only thing stopping the Chiefs to that point were their own drops.




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