By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Four teams remain in the hunt to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. On Saturday, the Tennessee Titans will travel to the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens with another seismic upset on their minds.
Then, on Sunday, it is the “Ryan Pace Memorial Bowl” with quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Texans taking on quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City in a battle of clear winners of the 2017 draft. These are mirroring match-ups as both home teams stand to be challenged by opponents that don’t mind playing the same type of game the top seeds succeed in.
Interestingly enough, Vegas sees the two AFC games ending in double-digit victory for the Ravens and Chiefs. Maybe the betting houses simply want things to move in a certain way, cause as we know the playoffs are tricky to predict and you can never count out the heart of a champion.
Lets take a deeper dive into both of these match-ups and the keys to winning in each contest.
Titans at Ravens:
Tennessee pulled off arguably the biggest upset of wildcard weekend at New England. Taking down the defending champs on the road should give the Titans a lot of confidence heading into this game with the Ravens.
How were the Titans able to pull it off? They used the old tried and true way last Saturday — running the football and playing great defense. Running back Derrick Henry was an absolute star, gaining a total of 204 yards and one touchdown. Those bruising yards, as well as domination on defense by the Titans in giving up only 14 points was extremely impressive.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill won a playoff game with only 72 yards passing, but he played well enough. Head coach Mike Vrabel will want his team to repeat its performance against the Ravens. The key for the Titans will be trying to gain a lead late to make Henry even more of a factor with a bruising ball-control centered offense.
As for the No. 1 seeded Ravens, this team looks primed for a deep run. They have themselves the leagues best rushing attack and the MVP in quarterback Lamar Jackson. Head coach John Harbaugh is one of the best in the league and should have his team ready for a battle. As long as the Ravens can match up with the Titans run game and defense then the explosiveness of the Ravens should win out.
The biggest advantage the Ravens have is their quarterback Lamar Jackson compared to Tannehill. Jackson can make a bevy of plays with his legs or his arm. But for either side getting a lead is critical, both teams play much better from ahead than from behind.
Texans at Chiefs:
Last week the Texans narrowly edged the Buffalo Bills in overtime. It was Watson’s first playoff game but the first half looked as bad as his first playoff game a season ago.
For some crazy reason, in their last two playoff games the Texans have been outscored 37-0 in the first half. A bad start last year was too much for them to overcome Indianapolis with, but luckily for Houston last week, they played a Bills offense that wasn’t exactly high powered. Fast forward to this week and it is imperative that the Texans start much faster if they even want to remain competitive against KC.
Falling down multiple scores in this match-up could provide an abrupt end to the Texans’ deepest playoff run yet. Earlier this year, the Texans went into Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs in a shocker so they are capable of winning in KC.
A huge lift comes this week to the Texans offense in the form of wide receiver Will Fuller returning to action. Fuller is to Houston what Tyreek Hill is to KC. The Texans really missed Fuller in the wildcard round, having him and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins available to get going will be key.
The Chiefs are the lone returning team from last year’s divisional round, this is a new position they are in — both experienced and poised for another AFC Championship birth. Slowly, but surely, KC’s defense is playing much better, you can even call them sneaky good as a unit overall. All year long the Chiefs have dealt with major offensive injuries, but the squad overall is healthy and all on the same page for seemingly the first time all year.
Since both of these teams are so explosive a key to this game is which squad can run the football more effectively and control the clock. Certainly the Texans have shown an ability to run the ball, they even did it in the first clash with the Chiefs. On the other hand the Chiefs can forget about the run at times and fall in love with its aerial attack. It’ll be key for head coach Andy Reid to get his run game going at some point Sunday.
Reid has been a terrific head coach with much big game experience, give him the advantage over his counterpart Bill O’Brien. Everything lines up for a Chiefs and Ravens AFC Championship, but these are the NFL playoffs and simply by surviving any of these four teams has shown what it takes to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR