KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Andy Reid has been around long enough to know that focusing on the playoffs with three games left in the regular season is foolish, a trap that can derail a team capable of much bigger things.
He also knows something about human nature.
So, try as he might to stop his Chiefs from pondering what the future could hold on Sunday, the old coach reluctantly acknowledged that everybody on his sideline will be well aware of the stakes.
Probably everyone on the Tennessee sideline, too.
“I know it’s an important time of the year. I know that. And if you’re in the hunt, every game becomes an important game, right?” Reid asked. “If you can just keep it that simple from a coach and player standpoint, you’re doing OK. It’s going to get blown up around you, but we don’t talk about it.”
The Chiefs (10-3), tied atop the AFC West after last week’s win over Oakland, are among three teams that can clinch a playoff spot this week. Beating the Titans is the easiest way, but they could back into a playoff spot if things break their way in games involving Denver, Pittsburgh and Miami.
But there is more at stake than just the playoffs, which is why Reid and Co. are focused solely on beating the red-hot Titans. They still believe they can earn a first-round bye and the AFC’s No. 2 seed.
“There’s a lot of incentives to put on this game,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “You want a ticket to the dance. You can’t win it unless you get in, so you want to clinch it, for sure.”
There are nearly as many incentives for the Titans (7-6), who are tied with Houston atop the AFC South. But while the Chiefs are almost certain to make the playoffs as a wild-card if they can’t hold off Oakland in the division, the Titans’ only hope for the postseason may be as a division champ.
“I know they know the big picture,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said, echoing his counterpart, “but I’m going to keep them on the same picture we’ve been on that we’ve got to win this game. We have to win. We have to go to a tough environment in Kansas City, a team that’s playing extremely well, and we’ve got to win this game or everything else is irrelevant.”
As two playoff contenders prepare to tangle at Arrowhead Stadium, here are some key story lines:
BUNDLE UP: The Chiefs-Raiders game Thursday night ended with temperatures in the low-20s, and that’s going to feel balmy. Snow is in the forecast on Saturday with temps at kickoff Sunday in the low-teens.
“Probably one of my last college games” at Oregon, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said, “it got down into the high-20s. So this will be the coldest game I’ve played, for sure.”
RUN, RUN, RUN: The Titans roll into the game with the league’s third-best rushing offense, buoyed by DeMarco Murray’s resurgent season and Derrick Henry’s increased role in the offense. And they’ll be facing a Chiefs defense missing linebacker Derrick Johnson, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week.
“Next man up. That’s what happened with me,” Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston said. “They played the first eight games this season without me and they did a great job. So it’s next man up. I’m going to pray for him and hope he stays strong. I know he’ll stay strong. But the next man needs to be prepared.”
SPEAKING OF RUNNING: The Chiefs have struggled to run the ball for weeks, and much of the shine has worn off Spencer Ware, who was a fantasy football darling through the first six weeks.
“It’s not one person, one scheme. It’s been hit or miss on all the different schemes,” Reid said. “We can tighten it up, and we can give the players some things that might be a little better for what they do.”
TYREEK THE FREAK: Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill was the AFC special teams player of the week after his punt return touchdown against Oakland. He also caught a TD pass in the game. And with a kick return TD and a TD run, he’s the first rookie since Gale Sayers to score each of those ways.
“I have to give a shoutout to my brothers out there on the field fighting for me, doing everything that they’re supposed to do,” Hill said. “Without those guys, I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you.”
RED ZONE EFFICIENCY: The Titans are among the best in the NFL at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, while the Chiefs are among the worst. Mariota has thrown 32 TD passes without a pick in those spots.
“He has a very quick release and there’s not a lot of room for error down there, a lot of tight windows,” Mularkey said, “and I think he’s been very good with that.”