On Christmas Eve in 2016, Tennessee Titans fans hoped quarterback Marcus Mariota could deliver an early Christmas present with a win over their division rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars, a win that would all but secure a spot in the playoffs. However, the Titans and their fans went to bed that night, not with visions of sugarplums dancing, but instead with the fate of their season all but flipped. The Titans lost to the lowly Jaguars 38-17, but the biggest story that came from the game was the end to Marcus Mariota’s season. Mariota fractured his fibula during the game after he was tripped up from behind and his leg rolled up behind him. Mariota’s playing days in 2016 were over, along with the Titans’ playoff hopes.
Even with the disappointment of being right on the edge of the first trip to the playoffs since 2008, many NFL experts saw the potential of the Titans team that returned along with a few offseason acquisitions. In the preseason, the Titans were ranked in the top 10 of multiple power rankings. With the high-octane offense led by the young Hawaiian quarterback combined with the number-4 ranked offensive line ranked by ProFootballFocus, the Titans seemed primed to make a deep playoff run.
However, questions still surrounded the volatility of the team that had gone 3-13 just two years before. Could head coach Mike Mularkey prove he had the ability to harness the talent provided to him and translate it to success on the field? Would Marcus Mariota show any signs of setback after his knee injury? And could the Titans defensive corps continue its dominating success that proved to be the difference in multiple games last year? While these questions proved legitimate, only the play on the field could prove if the Titans were capable of the praises they got from journalists in the offseason.
Even through the four preseason games the Titans played, there were no true answers to the offseason questions presented by writers. Mariota looked comfortable in his first action back, but with such a small sample size due to trying to avoid another injury, it was hard to determine if he could return to his true form. Injuries also plagued the team throughout the preseason with running back DeMarco Murray missing time with a nagging hamstring injury as well as rookie wide receiver Corey Davis missing the entirety of the preseason with a hamstring injury. While it was only preseason, the Titans went 1-3, losing games to the Jets and Bears, both teams the Titans outmatched on paper.
Once the regular season finally came, the Titans opened against the Oakland Raiders, a team that matched up similarly with the Titans, having a young quarterback as well as a strong receiving corps. The game was a back and forth affair, and it ended up that the offense struggled more than the defense, something very few would have predicted after the Titans averaged 28.7 points per game the year before. Multiple drives saw the Titans stall out in the red zone, settling for short field goals. This proved to be the turning point in the game, as the Raiders were able to maintain momentum with their defense bending but not breaking. Oakland pulled away late, with Marshawn Lynch pounding the ball down the throat of the Titans defense, and the Titans lost 26-16.
Head coach Mike Mularkey was pleased with the effort of his team, especially with it being the first game of the year, but stated clearly, “We came up short. I didn’t like that we had to kick a field goal in the red zone. We need to finish drives much better, and we need to convert third downs.” Mularkey made it clear to his team, specifically his offense, that they needed to find another gear in their play if they expect to be playoff contenders late in the year.
After the tough defeat, the Titans responded to the loss and their coach with resounding victories over division rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars, as well as a perennial powerhouse in the Seattle Seahawks. Marcus Mariota led the offense, responding to Mularkey’s comments, by averaging 32 points against two superior defenses, specifically against Seattle and their self-proclaimed “Legion of Boom”.
Currently standing at 2-1, the Titans are in the driver’s seat in the standings, holding first place in the AFC South. They look forward to games against division foes in the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts in games that are essentially must-wins due to their positioning in division play which determines playoff seeding. If Mariota can lead the offense similar to their opening games and defensive guru Dick LeBeau shores up some minor holes in the defense, the Titans deserve to be hosting a playoff game at Nissan Stadium come January.