KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans hoped to follow the same game plan against the Kansas City Chiefs that had carried them to playoff wins in Baltimore and New England, giving the ball to running back Derrick Henry as much as possible.
It was a bad sign that their bruising star never got a carry in the fourth quarter.
The Chiefs minimized the impact Henry had on the AFC championship game Sunday, holding him to a mere 7 yards after halftime, when Patrick Mahomes and Co. were capping off 28 consecutive points. The result was 35-24 victory that sent Kansas City to its first Super Bowl in 50 years and the Titans home after an incredible postseason ride.
Henry finished with 19 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown for the Titans, who were languishing around .500 when they beat the Chiefs in Week 10. They proceeded to lean heavily on Henry down the stretch, and won nine of their next 12 games — and three straight — to reach their sixth AFL or AFC championship game, and first since 2002.
Their route as a wild-card team took them to New England and Baltimore, yet they even managed to clear those hurdles with ease. They turned away Tom Brady in Foxborough and shut down Lamar Jackson and the rest of the Ravens.
They couldn’t pull off one more upset in Arrowhead Stadium, though.
They couldn’t finish off their first trip to the Super Bowl in two decades — even if their painfully obvious plan was working early on.
Henry carried three times on an opening drive that net them a field goal, then he capped their next drive by taking a direct snap and waltzing over the left side into the end zone. Henry added 29 yards rushing on their third drive, a churning 75-yard march that consumed more than 9 minutes and kept Kansas City’s potent offense off the field.
By the time big offensive lineman Dennis Kelly grabbed a touchdown pass, the Titans had taken a 17-7 lead and the raucous environment of Arrowhead Stadium — which was so energized a week ago, when Kansas City scored 41 straight points to rally past the Houston Texans — was about as quiet as a church on a Sunday afternoon.
That’s when the Chiefs caught fire.
And it’s when everything went downhill for Tennessee.
Mahomes finished a quick scoring drive with a touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill, starting a run of 28 consecutive points to rival their streak in the divisional round. Then, the Chiefs stuffed Henry twice on the following drive when the Titans seemed to be trying to get to halftime, getting the ball back at the 2-minute warning. And with 11 seconds left, their star quarterback tip-toed down the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown run that completely deflated the visitors.
“They were playing a little double-coverage, they were doubling everybody we covered, and it just opened up,” Mahomes said. “I just found a way to get into the end zone.”
Yes, the Titans managed to force a punt out of halftime, but they failed to move the ball and had to punt it right back. All the momentum swung to the Chiefs, who scored on their next two possessions to take a 35-17 lead in the fourth quarter.
That kicked off two weeks of Super Bowl excitement in Kansas City.
It ended a two-month dream for Tennessee.
There was a growing sense around Nashville that the Titans would follow in the footsteps of the Steelers and the Packers, the two teams that have beaten the top three seeds in the postseason; both went on to win the Super Bowl.
But neither of those teams had to go into Arrowhead Stadium and beat a team that came within a whisker of reaching the Super Bowl a year ago. Once the Chiefs pulled ahead, they minimized the impact of Henry, forced Tennessee to gamble on defense, and they left coach Mike Vrabel’s team playing outside of its comfort zone for the first time this postseason.
The outcome was clear by the final few minutes of the fourth quarter.