KANSAS CITY _ The Tennessee Titans looked as if their postseason stay would be a short one on Sunday, until an amazing second-half comeback, led by their Heisman combination of Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry, helped them erase an 18-point halftime deficit and claim an improbable 22-21 victory over the host Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday’s AFC Wild-Card Game.
The victory marked the first playoff win for the Titans since a road win in Baltimore following the 2003 season and sets Tennessee up to face either the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers next weekend in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, depending up on the result of Sunday’s other Wild-Card game between Buffalo and Jacksonville.
“That’s the team we have. It doesn’t surprise me,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “When we came in the locker room, there was a look that we were going to come back and win the game. They stick together and they’ve got each other’s backs, and it came through today when we really needed it.”
Mariota shook off a first-half interception to complete 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards with two touchdown passes – including one to himself on a batted ball – and one interception. He also rushed eight times for 46 yards.
That helped to supplement the rushing of Henry, who after a self-described “soft” performance against Jacksonville last week, rushed for 156 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown and the game-clinching run that sends the Titans into the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Titans needed to pull out all the stops and then some to rally past the Chiefs. Kansas City built a 14-0 first-quarter lead and expanded that lead to 21-3 at halftime when Demarius Robinson broke a Kevin Byard tackle for a 14-yard touchdown reception with just three seconds left in the first half.
The Titans came out in the third quarter and marched downfield, reaching the 6-yard line where they faced third-and-goal. Mariota lofted a pass in the direction of Corey Davis, but Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis batted the ball into the air, right back to Mariota, who caught it and reached over the pylon with the TD pass to himself.
It cut the Kansas City lead to 21-10 and breathed some much needed life into the Titans.
“I got really lucky there and was trying to make a play,” Mariota said. “I was trying to give Corey a chance there. Revis batted it up there and made a good play, and I was kind of at the right place at the right time.”
It was clear from that point on that momentum and fate were swinging in the Titans’ favor.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before. We haven’t had a lot of things like that since I’ve been here go our way in that fashion, so it was good to see it happen,” Mularkey said.
Tennessee’s defense, which benefited when Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was knocked out of the game with a concussion, clamped down and kept the Kansas City offense at bay. The Titans weathered a fumbled punt by Adoree’ Jackson when Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s kick hit the left upright, keeping the score 21-10.
After the miss, Mariota directed the Titans back downfield and on the second play of the fourth quarter, Henry rambled 35 yards to the end zone on a draw play for the score. The Titans went for two, but could not convert leaving the score 22-16.
“It’s been a long time coming for this team to be in the playoffs and then to win,” Henry said. “We stuck together. We got down early, but we believed in each other, but we came out and played Titans football for the last 30 minutes.”
The job wasn’t finished, however, as the Titans turned back the Chiefs again and got the ball back with 11:15 to play, trailing by five and 80 yards from a go-ahead score.
Mariota then finished the deal, taking the Titans to the end zone in 11 plays, with much-maligned Eric Decker catching a 22-yard TD pass for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I’ve let these guys down the last couple of games and got over the hump and made it when it counted,” Decker said.
Even as the Titans clung to that lead, there were some scary moments, mainly on two different fumbles that eventually did not count. The first was on the two-point try after Decker’s TD when Mariota fumbled the ball, but was ruled stopped by forward progress and the play dead. The Chiefs had taken it back for what would have been a defensive two-point conversion.
Then, after the Titans defense stopped the Chiefs on a fourth-down incompletion, Tennessee got the football in the four-minute offense. Henry went down and lost the ball after he hit the ground. Derrick Johnson picked it up for what was initially ruled a 56-yard fumble return touchdown. But a replay review showed Henry was down before the ball came out. From there, the Titans ran the clock out, even thanks to a block from Mariota that sprang Henry for a final first down.