The stretch of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks faced by the Chiefs continues with Sunday’s game against Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium.
Mariota is the third Heisman winner in the last six weeks to confront the Chiefs, who are looking to win the season series against top college honorees after splitting the first two: a victory over Cam Newton and Carolina on Nov. 13 and a loss to Jameis Winston and Tampa Bay a week later.
Newton won the award in 2010 at Auburn; Winston in 2013 at Florida State. And both had productive games against the Chiefs.
Mariota, in his second NFL season after winning the 2014 Heisman at Oregon, has the potential to follow that pattern. He ranks seventh in the NFL in passer rating based on several statistics, such as his 25 touchdowns passes and eight interceptions with a 62.6 percent completion rate.
“He’s a growing quarterback,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “He’s been getting better every week. He seems pretty poised in the pocket, which is kind of hard for a young quarterback.”
What impresses Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones most is Mariota’s ability to take off on a designed run or when he can’t find an open receiver. Mariota ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks with 356 rushing yards, a 6.4 yard-per-carry average.
He’s also one of the fastest quarterbacks in the NFL, having run a 4.52 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
“You don’t see that,” Jones said. “That’s pretty fast for a quarterback. That’s a running back playing quarterback. We’re going to have to catch the guy, get in his face, deflect passes, whatever we have to do.”
Mariota contributes to the NFL’s third-most productive rushing attack, which could prove beneficial in a couple of ways this weekend.
The weather forecast indicates the kickoff temperature could be lower than the 21 degrees that greeted the Chiefs and Raiders last week at Arrowhead Stadium. And frigid weather usually favors teams with better rushing games.
Titans running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry — the 2015 Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Alabama — have combined for 1,489 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The Titans powered through a 13-10 victory over the Broncos last week on the strength of a ground game that produced 180 yards.
The Chiefs have gotten a combined 985 yards and four touchdowns from their top two backs, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, and very little from quarterback Alex Smith, who was among the NFL’s top rushing quarterbacks last season.
Another factor that could work against the Chiefs is the absence of inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last week.
Johnson is the team’s top tackler, with 90 stops this season. He’s second with eight tackles for loss. From a run-game standpoint, that could be an issue.
“It’s a tough void to fill,” Berry said. “Just the years of experience, his presence and his IQ that he’s accumulated over the years, having him out there and understanding what offenses are trying to do. … That’s a big deal. We’ll have to figure something out.”
The Chiefs have options on the roster, such as Frank Zombo and D.J. Alexander. Also, Justin March-Lillard is eligible to come off injured reserve.
The postseason stakes are high for both teams.
The Titans and Texans are tied for first in the AFC South at 7-6, one game ahead of the Colts. This is the latest Tennessee has held at least a share of the division lead since 2008, the team’s last playoff season.
The Chiefs are 10-3 with the Raiders atop the AFC West but own the tiebreaker over Oakland thanks to their regular-season sweep. Win Sunday and the Chiefs will clinch a playoff spot for the second straight year and third time in four seasons under Andy Reid.
“I know it’s an important time of the year,” Reid said “If you’re still in the hunt every game becomes important.”