KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The finality of an NFL playoff loss lingers like an unwanted companion unwilling to let failures be forgotten.
There is little refuge from the mental barrage of what-ifs. Neither is there a “next week” to which one can cling like driftwood on a raging river of regret.
All one can do is look toward the uncertainties of another offseason and the grueling grind of training camp.
Only with the start of a new season can the road to redemption truly begin.
And so the Chiefs head into their Week 1 confrontation with the Tennessee Titans seeking to vanquish the ghosts of Jan. 4, 2014.
It’s no surprise the team isn’t taking the Titans lightly.
“We know they are a good football team,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said during a Wednesday media session. “They’ve got a new coaching staff. Similar situation to what we came into last year as a team. They are playing good, hard, aggressive football.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
• The Chiefs finished the 2013 season tied for sixth place in scoring (26.9 points per game), ranked 10th in rushing (128.5 yards per game) and tied for 24th in passing (208.8 yards per game)
• The Titans closed out last season ranked 19th in scoring (22.6 points per game), 14th in rushing (118.4 yards per game), and 21st in passing ( 218.5 yards per game)
• The Chiefs achieved a final 2013 ranking tied for fifth place in scoring (19.1 points allowed per game), 22nd against the run (120.2 yards allowed per game) and tied for 25th vs. the pass (247.6 yards allowed per game).
• The Titans concluded their 2013 campaign ranked 16th in scoring (23.8 points allowed per game), 20th against the run ( 112.2 yards allowed per game) and 11th vs. the pass (225.8 yards allowed per game)
The last time
The Chiefs defeated the Titans 26-17 in Week 5 of the 2013 season in Nashville.
The Chiefs and Titans meet for the 50th time Sunday with the Chiefs leading the all-time series 29-20. The Chiefs hold a 17-8 edge at Arrowhead Stadium and 12-12 as the visitor.
Kansas City has won seven of the last 10 meetings against the Titans, and are 3-3 against Tennessee since the franchise relocated from Houston.
As much as the Chiefs need to exorcise the demons of last postseason, the defense, more specifically needs to re-establish itself as one of the league’s top units.
Remnants of their humiliating, second-half collapse against the Colts still smolder in the collective psyche of the fan base. Therefore, it’s imperative the team sets a definitive tone against the Titans in front of the home crowd.
“I feel like we have to start fast and finish faster this year,” defensive tackle Dontari Poe told the media Thursday. ”The better we can play, the better the defense will have momentum moving on.”
Momentum is key considering they face four, 2013 playoff combatants in Weeks 2, 3, 5 and 7. That stretch includes road games against the Broncos, 49ers and Chargers respectively.
“You don’t want to look far ahead, but you want to know what’s coming,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali told reporters Thursday. “The first game is going to set the tone on what we want to get done throughout the regular season. This is the most important game on the schedule right now.”
A FAMILIAR FOE
Titans coach and former Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt isn’t a stranger to attacking the Chiefs defense. His 2013 Charger offense taxed the Chiefs for an average of 34 points, 310.5 yards passing, and 145 yards rushing in two regular season wins.
Reid expressed respect for Whisenhunt’s play calling ability and urgency in the Chiefs being prepared.
“Offensively, Ken Whisenhunt has a great track record of not only being a head coach but being an offensive mind,” Reid said Wednesday. “We’ve got to make sure that we prepare ourselves, go through all the steps that it takes here each day, take care of business, learn the game plan, learn the personnel we are playing against, understand the schemes and then go play.”
LOCKER AN X-FACTOR
Titans quarterback Jake Locker was sidelined with a hip injury when the two teams met in Week 5 of last season.
In Locker’s stead, journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Titans against to the visiting Chiefs. Prior to that game, Locker guided the Titans to a 3-1 start and seemed to have shaken off the stigma of being inconsistent and injury-prone.
His return could have a critical impact on Sunday’s contest.
Under the tutelage of Whisenhunt, Locker has more responsibility and unprecedented freedom to change protections and plays at the line of scrimmage. For Locker it’s been a difficult but welcomed change.
“That’s the hardest part, just having the extra responsibility at the line of scrimmage,” Locker recently told John Glennon of Tennesean.com. “It’s just getting comfortable doing that throughout the practices and OTAs, and now having the opportunity do it in games. It’s taking advantage of that opportunity and allowing our offense to hopefully get in the best play and best situation for us.”
The Chiefs have an X-Factor of its own in second-year tight end Travis Kelce, who lost his rookie season to a knee injury. Kelce, now healthy and fully recovered from microfracture surgery, compiled two touchdowns on 11 receptions for 193 yards in preseason action.
Those numbers reverberated loudly throughout the fantasy football landscape, as Kelce became a hot topic as a sleeper pick in draft discussion.
“I don’t live in a fantasy world,” Kelce told reporters Wednesday. “I’m living the dream, but I’m not living in a fantasy world. Hopefully I won’t be a sleeper for too long.”
Both teams have impressive defensive personnel and an assortment of weapons to deploy offensively. Ultimately, the victor could be determined by which team does a better job protecting the quarterback.
The Titans offensive line, anchored on the left by 2008 All-Pro tackle Michael Roos and guard Andy Levitre, ranked ninth in fewest sacks allowed with 37 last season. The Chiefs managed three of those sacks when the two teams last collided.
The Chiefs’ front seven must apply similar pressure on Locker. However, if Whisenhunt opts to primarily use formations with three or more receivers, it could force the Chiefs into nickel and dime personnel.
That strategy would potentially defang the Chiefs pass rush by removing linebackers Tamba Hali and/or Justin Houston from the field. This in turn would allow Locker time to dissect the secondary with explosive wideouts Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Nate Washington.
Such a scenario could burden quarterback Alex Smith, running back Jamaal Charles and the rest of the Chiefs offense with scoring early, fast and often.
Doing so might prove difficult without top wideout Dwayne Bowe (suspension) and behind a young offensive line in flux.
Outcome: Titans 31, Chiefs 21