Worst of halves, best of halves

Titans running back Derrick Henry racked up 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries against the Chiefs. (photo: AP)

KANSAS CITY — It truly was the worst of times and the best of times for the Tennessee Titans, all in one frigid afternoon and evening in Kansas City. What arose was one of the most beautiful and satisfying victories in Titans history, their eighth playoff win since coming to Tennessee and their first in 14 years—a come-from-behind 22-21 epic over the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. From down 21-3 at halftime, this was the largest playoff comeback win in Oilers/Titans history and the second largest by a road team in NFL Playoff history.

It was a game that captured a franchise at a crossroads as numerous reports surfaced before and during this game stating the organization had settled on a coaching change, and one which summoned up great teams and great games past through transcendent performances. Marcus Mariota reminded us all of the warrior spirit embodied so well for so long by Steve McNair, and the defined leadership and willingness to do whatever it took—whatever the game called for to win, and it was the second straight week of that. Derrick Henry reminded us all of the first superstar of this Tennessee franchise with his bursting runs of power and grace recalling Eddie George. His fourth quarter resembled George’s in Indianapolis in the magic run of 18 Januarys ago.

Add to it a toughness and a grit on defense, a defense bloodied by a 264-yard first half but unbowed to a 61-yard second half.

It was a triumph that defied logic. The Chiefs scored twice in the first quarter, a Kareem Hunt one-yard run and a 13-yard pass from Alex Smith to Travis Kelce. The second quarter saw the Titans get their legs a bit, as they flashed the formula they would later use to such success, a formula which did not include the Mariota interception on a play that started outside but ended inside the red zone. But a defensive breakdown just before half (as Smith found Demarcus Robinson for a 14-yard score) made it 21-3 at halftime. It looked grim.

Coach Mike Mularkey clearly noted where they had success and was willing to go back to it even though apparently in odds with the game plan. In the all-important first possession of the third, Tennessee drove 91 yards in 15 plays over 8:29. But the wacky Mariota-to-Mariota ending is what gets the gold star. The awareness and desire shown on this play by their quarterback galvanized this squad. A stop by the defense after an Adoree Jackson muff of a punt into a missed Chiefs field goal fueled the team further. The combination of short throws, power running of Henry, and heart of Mariota was the solution to the equation.

Come the fourth, it was a runaway train. You might say it was ‘The Pain Train’ running over Kansas City. Having lost an NFL-record five consecutive home playoff games, their fans saw the writing on the wall. With recent playoff failures, Coach Andy Reid knew the writing on the wall. Sprinkle in a little fairy dust in the form of fortuitous officiating, and the die was cast. Adding to the improbable, Eric Decker’s leaping catch gave Tennessee the lead with 6:06 remaining. The often-suspect pass defense held up. Henry, with help from one legendary lead block from his quarterback, put the game away.

The Titans advance to meet the world champion New England Patriots in Foxborough, and the game can be seen at 7:15 pm, Sat., on Channel 5.