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The Keys to the NFL Conference Championship Games

Could the Titans actually make the Super Bowl? If they want to, they’ll have to figure out how to cover the fastest man on the field.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two teams will win a spot in the Super Bowl on Sunday. A Tennessee Titans victory in the AFC championship game would make them just the third no. 6 seed to reach the Super Bowl since the NFL expanded the playoffs to include 12 teams in 1990. It would also mean the Titans would have defeated all four AFC division champions in a row en route to the Super Bowl, starting with the Texans in Week 17. If the Chiefs win, head coach Andy Reid will advance to his second Super Bowl in 21 seasons, and his first since February 2005. Outside of Kansas City, the people rooting hardest for the Chiefs are likely those working for the NFL’s marketing department, who will spend their next two weeks pumping up either Ryan Tannehill or Patrick Mahomes.

In the NFC championship game, a 49ers win could set a new model for rebuilding sports franchises. (The “Trust the Process” teams—the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Browns, and Houston Astros—have seen better times.) A Packers win would be remarkable after the 49ers clobbered them 37-8 two months ago in the same stadium.

Sunday, January 19

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Kickoff time: 3:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter), Jay Feely (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Kansas City -7.5
Over/under: 52
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, high of 25 degrees
Key Titans injuries and absences: Receiver Adam Humphries (ankle), tight end Delanie Walker (ankle, injured reserve), pass rusher Cameron Wake (knee, injured reserve), linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder), cornerback Malcolm Butler (wrist, injured reserve), kicker Ryan Succop (knee, injured reserve)
Key Chiefs injuries and absences: Tight end Travis Kelce (knee), tackle Martinas Rankin (knee, injured reserve), defensive end Chris Jones (calf), defensive end Alex Okafor (pectoral, injured reserve), defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (pectoral, injured reserve), outside linebacker Breeland Speaks (MCL, injured reserve), cornerback Morris Claiborne (shoulder), safety Juan Thornhill (ACL, injured reserve)
Key to the game: How Tennessee defends Tyreek Hill

Back in Week 10, Tennessee beat Kansas City 35-32 despite getting shredded on defense. The Chiefs offense gained 530 total yards, their highest total of the season, and Patrick Mahomes had 446 passing yards, the second most of his career. Kansas City moved the ball effortlessly, and the main reason was that receiver Tyreek Hill caught a career-high 11 receptions for a season-high 157 yards. The Chiefs targeted Hill 19 times, the most of his career and the second most any receiver saw in a single game this season. That many targets is almost unheard of for an Andy Reid offense. Reid has been a head coach for 363 games across 21 seasons, and the only player on a team of his with that many targets in a game was Terrell Owens in October 2005. Why did Reid like Hill’s matchup against the Titans more than anything he’d seen in almost 14 years?

The Titans gave Hill a lot of real estate. He is the fastest player in football. When you are trying to cover the fastest person on the field, whether you are in the NFL or rec league flag football, your natural instinct is to back up and give them space. This is what the Titans did against Hill in Week 10. Here’s a screenshot from the second play of the second quarter of that game, when the Chiefs had a second-and-10 at their own 20-yard line. The Titans put a full 24 feet between Hill and the nearest defensive back.

The problem is that this real estate is valuable. Mahomes tossed him the ball immediately, and Hill is so elusive in open space that he gained the first down. Here is how the above play worked out.

Over and over again, the Titans gave Hill real estate and the Chiefs took advantage. On a first-and-20 play earlier in the game, the Titans gave Hill 6 yards of space.

Hill gained 14 yards.

Giving away this real estate does not work. So what does?

The Titans have to do the opposite of giving Hill space: line up close to him and put their hands on him to disrupt the timing of his routes (which is not a penalty within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage). They would be wise to do the same to Travis Kelce, who is also an elite receiver. Passing plays are designed down to the step, and knocking a receiver off his route can ruin the whole play. The Titans did an excellent job of jamming Hill on the fourth play of the game. Hill is at the bottom of the screen. Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro shoved Hill midway through his route. Mahomes threw the pass to Hill on time, but the shove made Hill late to the ball, and the pass was nearly intercepted.

“That’s the key to slowing this offense down,” CBS announcer Tony Romo said after the play. “Get your hands on these receivers, disrupt that timing, don’t allow them to get in rhythm.”

The Titans did not stick with this strategy. Even when they played Hill close to the line of scrimmage, they didn’t get their hands on him, and he used the free release to burn them. The Titans will be in much better shape on Sunday if they play tight coverage against Hill instead of giving him space. But they also have to use that tight coverage as an opportunity to put their hands on him. Forcing him to add just two or three steps to his route can disrupt the timing of a play.

Hill also burned Tennessee because the Titans played a lot of zone coverage, especially Cover 2. Picture the zones in a Cover 2 defense like an upside-down Olympic logo. One defender is responsible for each of the five zones. The offense wants its receivers to run into the blind spots that aren’t covered by any of those zones.

The Chiefs are elite at attacking zone defenses. Mahomes was the no. 1 quarterback against zone coverage in 2018. When Hill has a free release, he’ll just run to one of the blind spots in a zone, sit there, and wait for the ball to arrive. The Chiefs did this over and over and over again against the Titans. Less than 90 seconds into the game, Hill picked up 19 yards on third-and-9 by finding the blind spot along the right sideline.

And here is Hill doing the exact same thing, but in the blind spot on the left sideline.

He also shredded the Titans in the blind spot up the middle. In the second quarter, Hill went right back to the gap between those two safeties and just stood there, waiting for the ball.

How does the opposing team’s best wide receiver get that wide open? Let’s zoom out to the coaches’ tape and add that upside down Olympic logo to see where Hill is sitting in the Cover 2 zone.

Earlier in the second quarter, Hill streaked down the middle of the field, wide open, for what should’ve been a long touchdown. Mahomes overthrew him and the pass bounced incomplete, but look how much green grass is between Hill and the end zone.

This was Mahomes’s first game back from a dislocated kneecap, so he may have missed this throw because he was rusty. For the AFC championship game this week, Mahomes is as healthy as he has been since Week 1. He won’t miss a pass like this again.

Tennessee began playing Hill in tight man coverage in the fourth quarter, and the results were much better. Playing tight man coverage and jamming Hill at the line of scrimmage will not stop him from making big plays, but it will make it much harder. Instead of sitting wide open in the soft spot of a zone, Mahomes will have to drop balls into his breadbasket.

“Yeah, you’re gonna give up a big play once in a while, but you’re gonna [give up a big play] anyway,” Romo said during the broadcast about the Titans playing man coverage. “You might as well try to get off the field and get up in their face.”

Unfortunately the man coverage part will be much more complicated this week than it was in their last game. In zone coverage, defenders face the line of scrimmage. In man coverage, defenders have to turn and run with receivers, so they often are not looking at the quarterback. The downside is that mobile quarterbacks can run when defenders aren’t looking. This was not a problem for Tennessee in Week 10. Mahomes had just returned from a dislocated kneecap and didn’t have a rushing attempt in that game—not even when the Titans went man in the fourth quarter.

Mahomes will probably scramble if the Titans play man coverage on Sunday. When the Texans went man coverage last week, Mahomes began scrambling. He rushed for 53 yards, more than his previous four games combined. Here is Mahomes’s 21-yard scramble on the drive when Kansas City took the 28-24 halftime lead. Notice the cornerbacks at the bottom of the screen turn their backs at the snap; Mahomes takes off.

This is a lot of space for Mahomes to run. There are no Houston Texans in this black box.

Mahomes has a space to run that is 35 yards long and 26 yards wide. That is 8,190 square feet. In Manhattan, an apartment the size of this rectangle would cost $12 million. The Titans can try to take real estate away from Tyreek Hill, but odds are the Chiefs will make them pay somehow.

Green Bay Packers (13-3) @ San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

Kickoff time: 6:40 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline reporter), Chris Myers (sideline reporter), Mike Pereira (rules analyst)
Opening line: San Francisco -7
Over/under: 45
Weather forecast: Cloudy, 55 degrees
Key Packers injuries and absences: Receiver Allen Lazard (ankle), receiver Geronimo Allison (illness), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (flu), right tackle Alex Light (flu), right guard Billy Turner (ankle), fullback Danny Vitale (knee), nose tackle Kenny Clark (back), outside linebacker Preston Smith (ankle)
Key 49ers injuries and absences: Tight end George Kittle (ankle), center Weston Richburg (kneecap, injured reserve), defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring), linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral), defensive tackle Jullian Taylor (ACL, injured reserve), defensive tackle D.J. Jones (ankle, injured reserve), defensive end Damontre Moore (forearm, injured reserve), defensive end Ronald Blair (ACL, injured reserve)
Key to the game: Aaron Rodgers vs. San Francisco’s pass rush

When these teams played in San Francisco in Week 12, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur slept behind enemy lines. LaFleur’s little brother, Mike, is the 49ers passing game coordinator, and Matt’s family stayed at Mike’s house in the Bay Area leading up to the game. The LaFleur brothers and their conflicted parents are just where the connections between these teams start. Matt LaFleur worked for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan for eight of his first nine years as an NFL assistant coach. LaFleur was roommates with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in graduate school at Central Michigan. These staffs know each other well, and their game plans on Sunday will reflect that.

LaFleur’s layover at his brother’s did not go well for his team. Statistically, it was the worst game of Aaron Rodgers’s career. The Packers were creamed 37-8, and Rodgers passed for 104 yards and a career-worst 3.2 yards per attempt. Green Bay did not convert any of their 13 third-down attempts when Rodgers was on the field. San Francisco’s pass rush sacked him five times and dominated the game even though defensive end Dee Ford missed the game. Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the game after just nine snaps, leaving second-year undrafted tackle Alex Light to block Nick Bosa. Bulaga and Light both missed last week’s game against the Seahawks with the flu, though Bulaga has returned to practice. Both he and Ford are expected to play on Sunday, as is 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander, who missed the Week 12 game. Whatever planning LaFleur and Rodgers do this week won’t mean much if the Packers can’t give Rodgers time to throw.

Bosa and Ford are going to make Rodgers’s life tough, but the Packers are well equipped to stop them. Left tackle David Bakhtiari is one of the league’s best, and Bulaga is solid on the right side. The middle of Green Bay’s offensive line is softer. Right guard Billy Turner is dealing with an ankle injury and left guard Elgton Jenkins is a rookie. The middle of the 49ers defensive line might be better than their edge rushers, with two excellent players—Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner—who can face off against the Packers interior line. Armstead wreaked havoc against the Packers in Week 12 even before Bulaga left. Here is Armstead tossing Turner, the right guard, to the ground and forcing Rodgers to get rid of the ball. (The pass fell incomplete.)

Still, Rodgers found some holes in San Francisco’s defense, especially when attacking the now-benched cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, but Rodgers (barely) missed on those throws. If Witherspoon does enter the game for any reason, Rodgers may throw at him immediately. The key will be for Rodgers to have time in the pocket, and in the last game he got crafty to fool San Fran’s pass rush. Rodgers held a few play-action fakes so long that he completely fooled Nick Bosa.

This is the kind of veteran wisdom that suggests Rodgers will find some weakness in the 49ers’ armor to exploit. The question is whether Green Bay’s offensive line can hold up, especially in the middle of the pocket. Matt LaFleur said this week that he and his family won’t be staying at his brother’s place. The 49ers caught the Packers sleeping once, but this time will be much harder.