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The Titans Did Just Enough to Put Away the Chiefs

After a sloppy first half, Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry saved Tennessee in the second

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry were abysmal on Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs, as mental errors and poor execution led to a 21-3 halftime deficit for the Titans. But Mariota and Henry were also spectacular, as their miraculous playmaking led Tennessee to a 22-21 win behind the team’s brightest young stars in the backfield.

The first half nearly got Titans coach Mike Mularkey fired after pregame reports suggested a loss would put his job in jeopardy. The Chiefs seemingly squeezed the life out of Tennessee, and Mariota frequently missed open targets in the first half—except for Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who intercepted an ugly Mariota pass from the Kansas City 21-yard line.

Henry, in the lead role after DeMarco Murray missed the game with a knee injury, fumbled in the first quarter and completely botched a pass-protection assignment, which ended with Mariota getting crushed.

The Titans entered halftime down 18 points. In the Super Bowl era, playoff teams are 3-67 when losing by 18 or more points at halftime.

Nobody told Henry and Mariota, who promptly put the team on their backs moving forward. Henry finished with 23 carries for 156 yards and two catches for 35 yards, racking up 149 of those 191 total yards in the second half. Mariota finished with 19 completions on 31 attempts for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of Mariota’s game, but these might: one catch for 6 yards and a touchdown.

With the Titans facing a third and goal from the 6-yard line, Mariota scrambled and found … himself, after Darrelle Revis batted a pass back into his arms and he dove in for a receiving touchdown. That play might be the defining highlight of his career thus far.

Then, less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Derrick Henry ripped off a 35-yard touchdown run as the Chiefs secondary decided it was only mildly interested in tackling him.

That made the game 21-16 after a sad two-point conversion attempt by Tennessee failed. After being shellacked in the first half, the Titans had somehow made it a game. Eight minutes after Henry’s run, Mariota had two plays that encapsulated his entire day as a passer: a guaranteed would-be touchdown that he overthrew to a wide-open Corey Davis on first down from the Chiefs’ 22, followed by a strike to Eric Decker for a touchdown on a throw that was 20 times harder.

No play better illustrates Mariota and Henry’s impact than the run that clinched Tennessee’s win. As the Titans were trying to bleed the clock, they faced a third and 10 just after the two-minute warning. If the Titans didn’t convert, they’d be forced to punt and the Chiefs would have the chance to win. Mariota handed off to Henry, who sensed trouble and shifted direction immediately after getting the ball. Mariota saw Henry reverse course and leaped into action as his lead blocker, pushing Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo out of Henry’s way. Henry went on to pick up 22 yards to drop the Chiefs.

Henry posted the game of his life in his biggest moment as a pro, and now the Titans may move on from Murray and hand him the reins. Mariota, meanwhile, rebounded from a terrible first half and contributed in areas most quarterbacks wouldn’t even think about. The third-year quarterback is the unquestioned leader of this Titans team in part because he can’t be fazed. Saturday showed that even when everything goes wrong for him, he can still find a way to make it right.