Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is always at his most creative when forced out of the pocket, but even he could not have envisioned what would prove to be the critical play of the Titans’ shocking 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an N.F.L. wild-card playoff game on Saturday.
Mariota, as he so often does, found himself on the run. His team was trailing by 18 points in the third quarter in the hostile environment of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Pass protection collapsed, and as Mariota scrambled toward the line of scrimmage, he appeared to throw the ball away, conceding yet another drive.
But when Darrelle Revis of the Chiefs batted the pass back toward Mariota, the quarterback snagged it out of the air. And as Kansas City’s defenders struggled to comprehend what they were seeing, Mariota sprinted forward for a touchdown that went into the books as a 6-yard pass from Mariota to Mariota.
In an on-field interview after the game, Mariota calmly congratulated his defense, while taking little credit for the shocking touchdown.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” he said after crediting Revis with having made a good play on the ball.
The play made Mariota the second quarterback in N.F.L. history to complete a touchdown pass to himself, joining Brad Johnson, who did it in 1997 with the Minnesota Vikings. And the play started a remarkable turnaround in which the Titans reeled off 19 consecutive points to get their first playoff win in 14 years and end the season of the A.F.C. West champion.
“It was just grit,” Derrick Henry, the Tennessee running back, said of the comeback. “You’ve got to believe in each other.”
The game was not particularly impressive statistically for Mariota, who completed 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, but in the end he did all of the little things necessary to extend drives and will his team to victory. Mariota spread the ball around to eight receivers — including himself — and deftly avoided Kansas City’s pass rush, aside from two sacks.
Tennessee appeared to come into the game at a disadvantage because its starting running back, DeMarco Murray, was out with a knee injury. But the Titans switched seamlessly to Henry, who gained 156 yards on 23 carries, including a 35-yard touchdown run.
The collapse of the Chiefs, who had gone into halftime with a 21-3 lead, somewhat mirrored their regular season, which began with a 5-0 start but also included a stretch of six losses in seven games.
Alex Smith completed 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, spending the first half carving up Tennessee with a receiving combination of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Demarcus Robinson. But Kelce had to sit out the second half after sustaining a concussion in the second quarter, and the Chiefs never recovered.
Even Kareem Hunt, Kansas City’s dynamic rookie running back, who had come out of nowhere to lead the N.F.L. in rushing this season, seemed unable to do anything in the second half. He finished the game with 11 carries for 42 yards and a touchdown.
With the loss, the Chiefs remained stuck on just one playoff victory since the team’s run to the A.F.C. championship game behind quarterback Joe Montana after the 1993 season. Smith’s future with the team will certainly be debated, as fans had already been clamoring for a switch to Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback whom the team took with the 10th overall pick in the draft last spring.
Depending on the results of Sunday’s game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills, the Titans will face either New England or Pittsburgh in the divisional round next, with a chance to reach the conference championship game for the first time since after the 2002 season.
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