KANSAS CITY _ The dream ended on step short of the goal for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Despite holding a 10-point lead on two different occasions in the first half, the Titans could not contain the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense and lost 35-24 in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs’ victory sends them to their first Super Bowl in 50 years, while the Titans ponder what might have been and head to the off-season.
“I’m proud to say that I coach them and I appreciate their efforts. There were a lot of guys that were battling through (that were) beat up, banged up and I felt like they fought,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “I felt like we got off to the start we wanted in all three phases, but when you play a team like this, like the Chiefs, as explosive as they are, we kind of knew they were going to make a run.”
The Titans team that had stunned both New England and Baltimore on the road to reach the conference championship game took control early in the game, getting a 30-yard field goal from Greg Joseph on the opening series and adding a touchdown on a nine-play, 58-yard drive following a three-and-out by the Chiefs to go up 10-0. Derrick Henry, who was the focus of the Chiefs defense, scored from 4 yards out on the wildcat formation.
After the Chiefs offense answered with a 10-play, 74-yard TD drive with Patrick Mahomes flipping the ball on a shovel pass to Tyreek Hill from 8 yards out to cut it to 10-7.
Tennessee scored on its third straight series on the ensuing drive with Dennis Kelly catching a 1-yard TD toss from Ryan Tannehill on a tackle eligible play to push the lead to 17-7.
But after that score, all the momentum and the big plays began to shift toward Mahomes and the host Chiefs, who scored touchdowns on their final two drives of the half to grab a 21-17 halftime lead.
Mahomes found Hill again, this time from 20 yards out, to cut the Titans lead to 17-14, and then following a three-and-out by the Tennessee offense, Mahomes directed a nine-play, 86 yard drive, capping it with a 27-yard scramble for the go-ahead touchdown and a lead the Chiefs would not relinquish.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Chiefs took control by scoring on the second play of the fourth period on Damian Williams’ three-yard run. The drive borrowed a page from the Titans’ philosophy as it covered 78 yards in 13 plays and took 7:08 off the clock in the third and early part of the fourth quarter.
After another Titans three-and-out, the Chiefs scored again, this time with Mahomes finding Sammy Watkins from 60 yards out to make the score 35-18. Time and again, Mahomes kept drives alive with scrambles and short passes, but then hit the deep post for the knockout punch.
“They’re a very explosive team,” Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. “The momentum was going their way and they ran off with it and we couldn’t get it back from them. They did a good job of getting the ball to their playmakers, getting explosive plays and letting those guys do their job.”
Tennessee managed to score a touchdown late to cut the lead to 11 on Tannehill’s 22-yard TD to Anthony Firkser, and got the football once more with just over two minutes to play but when that drive fizzled on a fourth-down sack of Tannehill, the Chiefs were able to run out the clock, end the Titans’ surprising playoff run and punch their ticket to Super Bowl LIV.
Mahomes made play after play to keep the chains moving – he was 23 of 35 for 294 yards and three scores and also rushed for 53 yards on eight scrambles, including the TD right before halftime.
“His scrambles definitely hurt us,” safety Kevin Byard said. “When we had the coverage downfield, he was able to scramble and get about 10 yards and get first downs to move the chains. We’re obviously disappointed we didn’t win the game today, but credit them. They’re a great team. They deserve to be in the Super Bowl.”
The Kansas City defense also rose to the occasion after the shaky start and settled in to their mission of not letting Henry run over them the way he had through the postseason. KC’s defense held Henry to just 69 yards rushing on 19 carries, and the Titans had to abandon the run in the second half when the game got out of hand. Henry had just three attempts for 7 yards in the final two quarters.
“They just had a great game plan. Guys were coming off the ball and being physical,” Henry said. “They played a great game on defense and their offense is explosive. We just game up short. All the credit goes to them.”
The loss ended the Titans’ magical run from lightly regarded No. 6 team, needing a win on the regular season’s final week just to get in, to reaching the franchise’s first conference championship game in 17 years.
“It’s tough. I’m kind of in shock a little bit. You don’t prepare yourself for this outcome. Everything in your preparation and in your mind is, ‘We’re gonna win this game.’ You don’t even think about the other side,” said quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who finished the game 21 of 31 for 209 yards and two touchdowns. “When it hits, it hits hard. I love this team. I love these guys. I love the way we competed this year.”
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