By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
Jockeying for first place in the AFC South division with a 6-6 record isn’t exactly the best way to catch the attention of the national media, but the Tennessee Titans are quietly putting together a solid season. Led by second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Titans are 5-3 in their last eight games and have put themselves in a strong position to make the playoffs, just a year after finishing with the worst record in the NFL.
The Titans promoted Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey to head coach during the offseason, and in Mariota’s second year in the offense he’s blossomed. Mariota has thrown 21 touchdowns and only three interceptions over the past eight games and now has a top-five quarterback rating of 101.9 on the season. Aided by a bevy of quality pass catchers, and an evolving offensive line, Mariota has the Titans in position to contend for a division title and their first trip to the playoffs since 2008.
Mariota has undoubtedly been helped by the arrival and success of free agent running back DeMarco Murray, who floundered in Philadelphia last season but already has more than 1,000 yards rushing this year. Murray has teamed up with rookie Derrick Henry to create a two-headed rushing attack that keeps defenses from focusing too much on Mariota, and allows a balanced offensive scheme that has at times looked dominant this year.
The Tennessee defense is still a work in progress. While they’ve improved over last year’s squad that allowed 26.4 points per game, they still rank in the bottom third of the league at 24.7 this year. The team has some talent growing though, as third-round rookie safety Kevin Byard out of Middle Tennessee State has played quality snaps and looks like a long-term starter. Pass rushers Derrick Morgan and a (finally) healthy Brian Orakpo have combined for 17 sacks this season as well.
Regardless of the defensive struggles, it’s exciting for Tennessee fans to see their team thriving on the offensive side of the ball. The team went from 28th in the league last year in points scored all the way to third this season at 25.7 points per game. The fact that much of that improvement comes from their 23-year-old quarterback is a good sign for the future.
The Titans have a tough road if they’re going to make the playoffs ahead of the Houston Texans—who have everything but a quality quarterback—and the Indianapolis Colts, who have nothing but a great quarterback. If they can win the division though, they have the type of game that often translates well to the postseason.
The Titans run the ball well, have a quarterback who improvises and can extend plays, and have a defense that is generating pressure—they rank just inside the top half of the league with 39 sacks this season. Those kinds of traits can get you far in the playoffs, and while it’s hard to imagine anyone defeating the New England Patriots in the AFC, you have to ask the question, why not the Titans?
The spotlight has been on the upstart Dallas Cowboys, the always-dangerous New York Giants, and the prolific Oakland Raiders offense, but nobody is talking about the gritty, power-running team in Tennessee that could end up with a top-four seed by winning a weak division.
The Titans are a flawed team that still might be a year or two away from competing for a Super Bowl, but if I’m looking for surprising teams that could make noise in the postseason, the Titans are the most complete second-tier contender in the AFC, and arguably have the most dynamic quarterback.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.