NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The long playoff drought is finally over for Titans fans.
The Titans made certain they'd be returning to the postseason by taking care of business last Sunday, beating Jacksonville in the regular-season finale.
The next challenge is a Kansas City team that won its last four games of the regular season.
Here are six key questions facing the Titans as they prepare for the Chiefs:
Can Derrick Henry run on the Chiefs? –** The Titans should be able to move the ball on the ground against a Kansas City defense that's ranked 28th overall – 25th versus the run.
In last season's win over the Chiefs, the Titans ran the ball 29 times for 148 yards, averaging over five yards per carry.
But improvements have to be made from last Sunday, when Henry carried 28 times for just 51 yards against a rugged Jacksonville defense.
The offensive line has to be better, as very few holes were opened in front of Henry. Per Pro Football Focus, Titans backs averaged just 0.2 yards per carry before contact, meaning 92.4 percent of the team's rushing yards came after contact.
But the 6-3, 247-pound Henry also spent too much time trying to bounce runs outside without much reward. He's had some success doing that this season, but there are times when the big back simply has to hit the pile inside, using his size to get what he can from a play.
The last thing Henry wants is a repeat of last Sunday, when six of his runs went for negative yards.
“(If you are the defense) that's what you want backs to do, you want them to be running that way,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “For his size, I think he (should hit) some of those holes a little firmer. That's a young back. The experience will help him do that, but I know he'd like to have some of those negative plays that we've had (back).”
What's the outlook for Marcus Mariota heading into the playoffs? –** Mariota has endured some rough patches this season, but he appears to be as healthy and as confident as he was before suffering a hamstring injury against Houston on Oct. 1.
Mariota hadn't run more than six times in a single game since the injury, but that changed against Jacksonville, when he carried a career-high 10 times – some by design, some scrambles – for 61 yards.
Were the runs a sign he's over his injuries or were they more a matter of necessity?
“Probably a mixture of both,” Mariota said. “At this point in time, every guy is probably not going to feel 100 percent. It’s just that time of the year. With the magnitude of these games, you’ve got to win. You’re going to find a way to make a play and hopefully help your team win.”
Over the last three games, Mariota has thrown three touchdowns and one interception, which is the kind of ratio Titans fans had grown to expect from him over the last two seasons.
Mariota may have thrown for only 134 yards against Jacksonville, but keep in mind the Titans only attempted 21 passes. In addition, the Titans suffered at least three dropped passes.
What's probably more significant regarding Mariota are a couple of Pro Football Focus nuggets:
• When Mariota had a clean pocket against the Jaguars, he connected on 75 percent of his throws, including a touchdown, while posting a 120.3 passer rating (season high).
• When blitzed by the Jaguars, Mariota completed 87.5 percent of his passes, posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
“Obviously he looked healthy and he looked like he's getting back to his old self,” Titans tight end Delanie Walker said. “That's what we need, especially coming into this postseason. We've got to keep him healthy, though.”
Can the Titans hit second gear in the first quarter? –** The Titans' first-quarter struggles continued last Sunday against Jacksonville when they were shut out in the first 15 minutes. Tennessee has managed a combined total of three points in its last five first quarters.
But second quarters have been a different story.
The Titans have scored 49 points over the last five second quarters, good for a 9.8-point average that was fifth-best in the NFL over that stretch.
It would be a boost for the Titans to come out strong offensively, considering they're 7-1 this season when scoring first. Then again, they trailed Kansas City 14-0 and 17-7 last season before rallying for a 19-17 victory.
Can the Titans defense contain Kansas City's big plays? –** One of the strengths of the Titans defense this season was its ability to limit big plays by opponents.
The Titans ranked No. 1 in the NFL when it came to allowing plays of 20-or-more yards, surrendering just 40 of them – three on the ground and 37 through the air.
But Tennessee will face a major challenge in that department against an explosive Kansas City team.
On the ground, Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt tied for first in the NFL with 12 runs of 20-or-more yards in 2017. Through the air, Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill finished first in the NFL with nine catches of 40-or-more yards.
In addition, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith finished third in the NFL with 13 passes of 40 yards or more.
“They feed off (big plays), not just offensively,” Mularkey said. “They're trying to hit the home run in special teams, too. They're looking for big plays. It's helped them get to this point. I don't see that being any different this week.”
The Titans held the Chiefs to just two plays over 20 yards last season, but one – Hill's 68-yard touchdown run – was a whopper.
Kansas City's passing attack will pose a challenge for Titans safety Kevin Byard, who finished tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions this season.
“It's a test for sure,” Titans cornerback Logan Ryan said. “Every team in the playoffs has got to do something good. K.C. does a good job of making some explosive plays.”
Will penalties prove a significant factor in this game? –** The Titans have made big strides this season in the penalty department. That was illustrated again last Sunday when the Titans – for the second time this year – were called for just two penalties that totaled 15 yards.
Overall this season, the Titans were called for 85 penalties that cost them 785 yards, both figures vast improvements from 2016 (110 penalties for 1,012 yards).
“That (lack of penalties) always helps,” Mularkey said. “That's one of the negatives that obviously can hurt you.
“I think that having officials out at practice (helps us). With any kind of pre-snap penalties, guys do push-ups. But the guys that create the penalties don't. They watch everybody else, how it affects the team. You're standing there, the lone wolf.
“And we talk about it. We show them the penalty chart. We talk about playing smart football. That has a lot to do with (not) taking penalties.”
The Titans' ability to steer clear of penalties could be a factor against the Chiefs.
That's because Kansas City was one of the most penalized teams in the league this season, flagged 118 times (sixth-highest in the NFL) for 1,044 yards (fourth-highest in the NFL).
How can Titans punter Brett Kern impact the game? –** It's one thing to say Kern led the league in both gross (49.7-yard average) and net punting (44.6-yard average) this season.
But how does Kern's work give the Titans an edge, aside from a few more yards than opponents on punts?
Sunday's win over Jacksonville provided a good example of just how Kern – even while kicking a frozen football – can really impact a contest.
Consider these numbers:
• The Titans had to punt from inside their 30 four times, the kind of situations that usually lead to good field position for the opposition. But Kern averaged 54 yards on those four punts, meaning the Jaguars never took over beyond their own 30.
• Kern punted nine times overall, pinning Jacksonville inside its own 20 four times. The Jaguars only crossed midfield once – and never scored – on their four ensuing possessions.
• The combination of Kern's hang time and directional accuracy helped limit Jacksonville to just 13 punt-return yards on five attempts, an average of less than three yards per return. In addition, Kern's punts may or may not have been the cause of trouble for Jaguars return man Jaydon Mickens, who muffed two catches. The Titans recovered one of those fumbles and produced a field goal.
-- Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.