Tennessee Titans: Important Player Matchups to Watch in the Wild Card Game

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 31: Corner Back Adoree' Jackson
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 31: Corner Back Adoree' Jackson /

Key matchups against the Chiefs in the Wild Card for the Tennessee Titans.

It’s playoff time, and your Tennessee Titans finally get an opportunity to compete for the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the 2008 season. Entering a make-or-break game for the Titans’ playoff hopes (and possibly HC Mike Mularkey’s job), the Titans faced the third-seeded Jaguars, an AFC South division rival that was determined to ruin the team’s playoff hopes for the second year in a row.

Facing a vaunted Jaguars defense that had imposed its will on opposing offenses for the entire season, as well as an offense that has quietly ranked in the top-ten for almost the entire year despite the loss of Allen Robinson and the average-to-below-average play of Blake Bortles, the Titans’ playoff hopes were as good as dashed according to many. However, some of the team’s young superstars simply refused to lose, and made spectacular plays to bring playoff football back to Nashville and rectify their earlier mistakes in the three previous games.

Running back Derrick Henry may have been frustrated with his rushing totals on the day, but his 66-yard catch and run in which he outran the entire Jags defense provided the team with their only touchdown on the day and gave them an early lead to protect for the rest of the game.

Newly anointed first-team All-Pro safety Kevin Byard stopped the Jaguars offense in its tracks with two interceptions. These turnovers gave QB Marcus Mariota and the offense even more opportunities to put points on the board and prevented Jacksonville from scoring and cutting the Titans’ lead down. Without these game-changing plays from Byard, the Titans may not have been able to stop Bortles and co. from putting points on the board.

Mariota, after weathering the criticism from his own fans, from sportswriters, and from social media, did just enough through the air to allow the running game to keep going and avoided throwing an interception to one of the league’s best secondaries. Mariota also displayed the exceptional running ability that had been lacking for several weeks following injury in order to create yardage out of nothing.

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Late in the game, Mariota took the team’s playoff hopes into his own hands for the greatest play of his young career. I’m not just waxing poetic here; if you somehow haven’t seen the play, go find it. On a crucial third and five, with a 15-10 lead, Mariota took off running. He sidestepped All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell, sprinted to the edge, buried Jaguars safety Barry Church with a huge stiff arm, and slid down just past the line to gain. He popped up as the clock wound down, and had to be held back by teammate Delanie Walker as he had a few choice words for Church after the play.

Although football must be considered a team game, and thus wins must be considered “team wins”, the standout performances by these three players, and a lack of strong performances from the Jaguars stars, led to a crucial Titans win in Week 17. This trend rings true in any game. A victory must be attributed to the team as a whole, but in a league with as little parity as the NFL, individuals must perform well above average if that team wants to win consistently. Let’s examine three key individual matchups in today’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. With two teams that have quality roster depth at almost every position, the team’s star players must step up and distinguish themselves to earn a playoff win.

Matchup 1: CB Adoree’ Jackson vs. WR Tyreek Hill

A fellow writer at Titan Sized, Luke Worsham, has already written at length about why the Titans must limit the impact of Tyreek Hill in today’s game and I suggest that you read his full article here. But to summarize Hill’s role in Kansas City, he has developed from mostly a gadget player as a rookie who excelled when he got schemed touches out in space, to a bonafide WR1 that can use his otherworldly speed to beat a defense or roll coverages towards him. He also can act as an important decoy that creates opportunities for other players as the defense focuses on him.

The Titans’ rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, also a return man, will likely draw the unenviable position of defending Hill throughout today’s game. Jackson has certainly come a long way from his Week 1 debut against the Oakland Raiders when he was repeatedly targeted to great success. Jackson has seemingly gotten better and better every week and routinely gets his hands on the ball to prevent catches. Jackson’s speed and athleticism make him the most favorable matchup to cover Hill in today’s game. If Jackson can effectively cover Hill and minimize his impact, he can help to limit the big plays that power the Chiefs offense and keep the game close.

Matchup 2: TE Travis Kelce vs. S Kevin Byard

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Travis Kelce has slowly but surely developed into one of the league’s biggest matchup nightmares at tight end. He can block well in the run game due to his size like a traditional tight end, but he also pairs this size with unexpected speed and athleticism. His size allows him to outmuscle cornerbacks, but his speed and route-running ability make it tough for anybody but the best coverage linebackers to keep up with him. Thus, safeties are often tasked with covering him, as they are traditionally stouter than cornerbacks and better in coverage than linebackers.

Based on Johnathan Cyprien’s less than stellar history in coverage, the Titans will likely turn to star safety Kevin Byard to prevent Kelce from pulling in big catches over the middle. Byard has proven himself capable of forcing turnovers when throws come his way, which also lends itself to covering Kelce. As the biggest safety blanket in the Chiefs offense, Kelce should see a lot of throws coming his way from Alex Smith if the Titans pass rushers can find their way into the backfield, which provides Byard with more opportunities to make a game-changing interception. When Byard is a force in coverage and generates turnovers, the Titans have fared very well this season. Byard should look to build off of a strong Week 17 performance and limit Kelce.

Matchup 3: QB Marcus Mariota vs. Chiefs Secondary

Last week, QB Marcus Mariota beat the Jaguars defense with his legs. This week, he should look to exploit the Kansas City secondary with his arm. Outside of Marcus Peters and Ron Parker, the Chiefs have average-to-below-average starters in their secondary after Eric Berry fell victim to injury early in the season. The Chiefs have cycled through the likes of Steven Nelson, Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines, and late career Darrelle Revis opposite Peters, but still have allowed opposing passing attacks to burn their defense.

The Chiefs ranked 29th against the pass this season, and if they have an achilles heel, it’s that pass defense. The Chiefs offense has the potential to be very explosive, so Mariota may be forced to pass a lot in today’s game to keep up. He can exploit the poor coverage of the Chiefs secondary and finally prove his doubters wrong with a huge game through the air.

Next: Kevin Byard is an All-Pro!