Now halfway through the season, what are we to make of the Tennessee Titans?
They stand 5-3 and tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars atop the AFC South standings in a division that has suddenly become a two-horse race. The Texans lost sensational rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson to a knee injury, and the Colts shelved their franchise QB Andrew Luck with the balky shoulder that has prevented him from playing a single snap this season.
On their way to a 5-3 mark, the Titans have been less than impressive at times. Their 57-14 shellacking at Houston was an obvious low point, and losses to the Raiders and Dolphins look as bad or worse now in the rearview mirror than they did when it happened.
Even in their past two games – wins over Cleveland and Baltimore – the Titans haven’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders, especially on offense. They managed not a single touchdown against the lowly Browns before the bye and mustered just 71 yards on the ground last Sunday against a Ravens run defense that was near the bottom of the league.
Of course ,the Titans aren’t about to apologize for how things have looked at times.
“I would say it’s the bottom line, wouldn’t you? Winning, the bottom line. That’s what you go out there for three hours and pound each others brains in for, is who’s going to win in the end, no matter how it happens. The bottom line is winning, finding a way to win,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said.
Mularkey has a point. After all, the Ken Whisenhunt years of the not-too-distant past are still fresh in fans’ memories. So even ugly wins at this juncture don’t look all that bad.
In examining the Titans situation and how it stands not only in the division, but in the AFC as a whole, it shows that Tennessee is part of a conference that might not have many super teams. Old stalwarts like the Patriots and Steelers look to be the best the AFC has to offer right now at 6-2, a game in front of Tennessee. But other than that, there don’t appear to be many teams that don’t have major question marks. The Kansas City Chiefs, who shot out to a 5-0 mark and were the last team to lose a game this season, suddenly look mortal now. And the usual contenders like Denver and Baltimore have become fractured and fragile franchises. The same thing goes for the Raiders, who have underachieved under the burden of heavy expectations and an impending move to Vegas.
The good news for the Titans is that they are right there in the thick of that equation with half a season’s worth of mostly winnable games remaining. Beginning this Sunday with a visit from the Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee can count just three teams on its remaining schedule that current sport a winning record. The aforementioned Steelers come calling in a Thursday night affair in Pittsburgh next week. After that, the Titans don’t face another team that currently has a winning record until the final two weeks of the season when they host the Rams on Christmas Eve and Jaguars on New Year’s Eve. (Yes, it was as strange for me to write “Rams, Jaguars and winning record” in the same sentence as it was for you to read it). But that is the reality now facing the Titans.
A team that has been largely mediocre for weeks at a time, has somehow forged through the muck that is the NFL in 2017 and put itself in a good position to not only have a chance to win the AFC South, but maybe even nail down a first-round bye, if it can take advantage of the path that is laid before it. At the very least, the Titans should be able to secure a wild-card berth.
Mularkey believes this team is capable of much more than it has shown. And in a kind of twisted sort of way, maybe that can be a good thing – winning while not playing all that well.
“I think they know what we’re capable of doing. I think that’s been this team’s identity for really, the year and a half that we’ve been together,” Mularkey said. “We’ve shown that we can be resilient and win close games, win tight games, beat good teams. There’s no question that we still have a lot of work to do, there’s no question about that in a lot of areas. If we can find a way at whatever time that is in the game to make a play to win the game, that’s all that matters.”
They have forged a winning record and a first-place tie in the division with a spotty running game, a defense that is improving but still needs to find its pass rush and a quarterback in Marcus Mariota, who still hasn’t hit his stride like he did in the second half of last season.
“I think we can play a whole lot better, especially myself,” said Mariota, who has just six TD passes all yaer. “Looking on the game, if we can convert third downs, find rhythm, stop turning the ball over, we can be really good.”
Maybe even good enough to stand out from amongst the jumbled mess that is the AFC when all is said and done.