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NFL Preview - Tennessee (6-8) at Kansas City (9-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Kansas City Chiefs are right where they want to be as they try to clinch their first AFC West title since 2003: Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs put their perfect home record on the line this Sunday as they host a Tennessee Titans club that will try to breathe some life into its nearly faded playoff chances.
At 9-5, Kansas City is a game up on the San Diego Chargers for supremacy in the AFC West. A victory this weekend over the Titans, coupled with a loss or tie by the Chargers in Cincinnati, will put the Chiefs in the postseason for the first time since 2006.
Last weekend's 27-13 victory was the Chiefs' fourth in five games and put the club in position to claim its first 10-win season since 2005. Quarterback Matt Cassel made the start just 11 days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy and threw a touchdown pass. He was forced to miss Kansas City's 31-0 setback in San Diego the previous Sunday that tightened the race in the division.
Few could question the quarterback's commitment to the team after he led them onto the field Sunday minus an organ.
"[Cassel] was going to be throwing up blood or he was going to be playing football," Chiefs offensive lineman Brian Waters said. "That's the kind of guy he is."
One week after being held to just 48 yards on the ground, the Chiefs' top- ranked run game took the pressure off Cassel with 210 yards rushing, while the defense recorded three sacks and two interceptions.
This game will feature two of the NFL's top four rushers in Kansas City's Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson of the Titans. Charles is third in the league with 1,303 yards on the ground, while Johnson is right behind him with 1,267.
The Chiefs know how dangerous the Titans' run game can be. Tennessee rushed for 317 yards and four touchdowns when the clubs last met on Oct. 19, 2008, a 34-10 victory that featured 168 yards and a score by Johnson.
The Titans' Pro Bowl running back posted his second straight 100-yard rushing game and eighth this season in last Sunday's 31-17 victory over Houston that snapped Tennessee's six-game losing streak and improved the team to 6-8.
In the club's final home game of the season, quarterback Kerry Collins completed touchdown passes on the Titans' first two drives before Johnson found the end zone from 11 yards out with 2:32 left in the opening quarter.
The victory kept Tennessee's chances at a division title alive, but they need to win their final two games, including a regular-season finale at Indianapolis on Jan. 2, and get two losses from Jacksonville and a setback by the Colts at Oakland this weekend to capture the AFC South.
"We're aware of those things. We understand what our situation is, who needs to do what," Collins said. "Is it a long shot? Yeah, it is, but that's not going to change our M.O. Want to come out, keep playing, [because] crazier things have happened, but we've got to take care of our business and we did that [Sunday]."
Collins is in reach of a number of milestones this weekend. He needs just 94 more passing yards to become the 12th quarterback in NFL history to reach 40,000 in his career. He is also 13 completions shy of passing Joe Montana (3,409) for ninth on the all-time list and 334 passing yards away from going ahead of Johnny Unitas (40,239) on that chart as well.
Kansas City's Thomas Jones became the 25th player in league history to rush for 10,000 yards in a career during last week's win.
Kansas City possesses a 25-10 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Tennessee, but the Titans have won the last two matchups in the set, both of which were held at Arrowhead Stadium. Tennessee delivered a 26-17 triumph on the road in 2007 and followed up with the previously-noted 34-10 decision in Kansas City the following year. The Chiefs' most recent victory over the Titans was a 49-38 ousting in 2004, and the team last defeated the franchise at home in 1995, a 20-13 win over the then-Houston Oilers.
In addition to their regular-season history, the clubs have met twice in the postseason, with the Chiefs taking a 28-20 decision from the Oilers in an AFC Divisional Playoff in 1993 and the then-Dallas Texans defeating Houston for the 1962 AFL Championship. The Texans moved to Kansas City following the 1962 campaign.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is 3-4 against the Chiefs for his career, while Kansas City's Todd Haley will be taking on both Fisher and Tennessee for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee's 28th-ranked offense (301.6 ypg) features a glimpse of both the past and future. With Vince Young (1255 passing yards, 10 TD, 3 INT) done for the season due to a thumb injury and his future with the club in doubt after his verbal collision with Fisher, Collins (1288 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) is holding down the fort at quarterback despite the fact that he turns 38 on Dec. 30. Though it's been an up-and-down season for Johnson (1267 rushing yards, 11 TD) and the Titans' 13th-ranked run game (115.6 ypg), the Chiefs still need to respect his ability to break off big plays, and Johnson is coming off a 130- yard effort versus the Texans. Collins completed just 14 of his 24 passes last week for 237 yards, getting sacked three times. In just his second game back from a hamstring injury, wide receiver Kenny Britt (33 receptions, 7 TD) led the way with six catches for 128 yards. Fellow wideouts Nate Washington (38 receptions, 6 TD) and Justin Gage (20 receptions, 1 TD) combined for just three catches, but two went for touchdowns. Randy Moss (27 receptions 5 TD), meanwhile, did not make a catch for the second straight week and has just five in six games with the Titans. With Fisher wanting to give some of his younger players some time on the field, tight end Bo Scaife (36 receptions, 4 TD) was a healthy inactive, while second-year pro Jared Cook (17 receptions) got the start and made three catches for 42 yards.
The Chiefs turned up the pressure on young Rams quarterback Sam Bradford last weekend, and it resulted in three sacks and a pair of interceptions for the NFL's 16th-ranked defense (333.5 ypg). Safety Kendrick Lewis (26 tackles, 3 INT) grabbed both interceptions to set a career single-game high, while all three sacks came from the arms of defensive end Wallace Gilberry (22 tackles, 7 sacks), who also had a career-best effort. Linebacker Derrick Johnson (112 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) was a force as well, compiling a game-high 13 tackles, while linebacker Mike Vrabel (44 tackles), defensive end Glenn Dorsey (57 tackles) and cornerback Brandon Carr (50 tackles) all had four each. While Johnson is busy chasing down tackles, fellow linebacker Tamba Hali (43 tackles, 11 sacks) is getting into the quarterback's face and has already set a career high for sacks in a season. Still, the Chiefs rank just 19th in the NFL in pass defense at 226.5 yards per game allowed. Safeties Eric Berry (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) and Jon McGraw (37 tackles, 2 INT) will be the last line of defense should Chris Johnson break past the front seven. Kansas City ranks 11th in scoring defense at 20.1 points per game, but that number drops to 12.2 points per game at home.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City's top-ranked ground game (168.6 ypg) was shut down by the Chargers two weekends ago, but Charles (1303 rushing yards, 5 total TD) and Jones (828 rushing yards, 6 TD) both got on track versus the Rams. Both backs found the end zone, while Charles ended with 126 yards on just 11 carries for an 11.5 average and is within reach of becoming the fourth player in club history to reach 1,400 yards in a season. That comes despite the fact that he has been splitting time with Jones, who had 62 yards on 22 carries against St. Louis. Cassel (2687 passing yards, 24 TD, 5 INT) attempted 29 passes, completing 15 of them for 184 yards. He also showed his already-established toughness by shaking off three sacks and scrambling for 17 yards on six carries. Cassel has a career-high 24 touchdown passes on the year, leaving him one shy of becoming the first KC quarterback to have 25 in a season since Trent Green in 2004. Charles tied for the club lead with three catches last week, while wide receiver Chris Chambers (17 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Tony Moeaki (41 receptions, 3 TD) also had three. Tight end Leonard Pope caught a two-yard touchdown pass, while wideout Dwayne Bowe (61 receptions, 14 TD) had just two catches and now has gone three games without a touchdown grab after hauling in one in seven straight games prior to that drought.
The Titans are allowing 114.1 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 17th in the NFL, but it will take a great effort to hold Kansas City under that mark. The Titans did hold the NFL's leading rusher, Houston's Arian Foster, to just 15 yards on 11 carries last weekend thanks to getting out to a big lead. Tennessee held Houston to just 30 yards total on the ground, but quarterback Matt Schaub dissected the secondary for 325 yards and two touchdowns on 35- of-54 passing. Rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner (81 tackles, 3 INT) did record an interception in the win, while defensive end Jason Babin (51 tackles) had two of the four sacks by the Titans, and his 12 on the season are a career high. Linebacker Gerald McRath (56 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Jason Jones (34 tackles, 3 sacks) both added a sack, while Verner led the way with 10 tackles. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (145 tackles, 1 INT) added nine tackles and both safety Michael Griffin (97 tackles, 4 INT) and corner Cortland Finnegan (86 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) had seven. The Titans rank 24th in the league overall in total defense (361.9 ypg), but are 12th in scoring defense with just 20.1 points per game allowed.
With their playoff hopes technically still alive, the Titans should roll out all the regulars this weekend, so Chris Johnson is a must-start. Britt is the one receiver you will want to start, but Tennessee's passing game is unreliable, making Collins and Washington risky plays. Moss is a stone-locked bust this year and isn't even worth a roster spot at this point. Tennessee's defense has a solid average as far as points allowed per game, but turnovers don't come too often. Kicker Rob Bironas has missed just one field goal all season and still has good distance, so he is a good start.
While Thomas Jones actually has more carries this year than Charles, it is the latter who is a must-start each week. Jones isn't a terrible flex play on most weekends, but he is a reach in this matchup. Cassel rarely turns the ball over, so he is a good second-tier quarterback option, while Bowe owners hope he can shake off a mini-slump in time to contribute to fantasy playoffs. Kansas City's defense is a middle-of-the-road option, while kicker Ryan Succop is 17-for-22 in field goal tries this season.
It's gut-check time for the Chiefs, who have already failed in a bid to knock the Chargers out of contention in the division. Kansas City still controls its own fate, while the Titans' playoff chances are on life support. Few teams have the answer to the Charles-Jones backfield tandem, and the duo should get plenty of chances to make plays against a decent Tennessee defense. Winning the battle in the red zone will be key for the Chiefs, and Cassel will need to be sharp inside of the 20 while avoiding turnovers like he has all season. This just isn't the Titans season, and the Chiefs will do their part to extend Tennessee's woes in an effort to win the AFC West.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 20, Titans 14
12/23 17:48:54 ET