The 2017 Titans are made in the mold of 2017 Marcus Mariota — talented, forgettable, and disappointing. Yet somehow they still might be in the playoffs.
The Titans fell to the Rams (and the superhuman Todd Gurley) on Sunday, 27–23, dropping their once-fantastic playoff odds to a toss-up. The Titans still control their own destiny, but will need to beat Jacksonville at home in Week 17 to make it into the postseason or hope that the Chargers and Bills both lose. #Sacksonville, who might have a shot at a first-round bye (what a time to be alive) won’t make it easy. If the Titans lose, they could miss the playoffs for the ninth-straight year and finish 8–8 after starting 8–4 and leading the AFC South just a month ago. The story of the league’s quietest playoff contender begins and ends with the league’s quietest leader, Marcus Mariota, and they’ll need him to rise to the occasion next week in the biggest game of his career against the best pass defense in football.
Against the Rams on Sunday, Mariota finished with 22 completions on 39 attempts for 275 yards and no touchdowns with one interception. It’s only the second time he has thrown for more than 200 yards since Thanksgiving. The Titans went toe-to-toe with the Rams in a way that Seattle couldn’t have dreamed of last week, but Mariota and the offense couldn’t string together the consistent drives they needed to win. The one interception he threw looked like he was searching for the most covered player on the field.
Mariota has been making these kinds of decisions — the kinds that make you confront a loved one by looking into their eyes and asking, “What were you thinking?” — all season.
It’s been a sharp decline for the 2015 second-overall pick out of Oregon, who seemed poised to make The Leap after an energetic and poised sophomore campaign. With a mauling offensive line and a fantastic run game, many pundits pegged the Titans as this season’s version of the 2016 Raiders. Instead, they’ve been closer to the 2017 Raiders.
Rather than taking a step forward in Year 3, both the Titans and Mariota seem to have taken two steps back. After throwing 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year, Mariota has 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions through 14 games in 2017. He’s looked lost more often and for longer stretches than he did last season. He famously has yet to throw a pick in the red zone in his career, but that’s not very impressive when he’s turning the ball over everywhere else, and the Titans don’t get to the red zone very often — their 34 drives there is tied for 27th in the league entering this week.
Much of the blame for the Titans’ skid needs to be put on head coach Mike Mularkey, who, to be kind, has not maximized the talent on the roster, and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, who runs an unimaginative offense. And while the Titans have leaned heavily on their running game, which has been excellent this season, Tennessee doesn’t have the defense that can support a one-dimensional offense like, say, Jacksonville can.
Yet with the fortune of a favorable schedule — 4–0 against the Colts (twice), Browns, and Deshaun Watson–less Texans — and some impressive wins against the Seahawks, Ravens, and Jaguars earlier this season, the Titans remain in the thick of the playoff hunt. The Titans have managed eight wins with a mediocre Marcus, but to make the playoffs, they’ll need Mariota to take a step forward for the entire team.