Mariota's improved play has Titans thinking playoffs at bye

FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2016, file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, in Chicago. Mariota is a big reason why the Titans (6-6) sit only a half-game out of first in the AFC South at their bye, winners of five of their last eight games. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Marcus Mariota has thrown himself into the company of the NFL's best quarterbacks, both past and present, just 24 games into his career.

If he keeps playing this way, the Tennessee Titans believe their second-year quarterback just might lead them to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

''He's doing what we all thought he was going to do this year,'' center Ben Jones said. ''Great composure, guy you trust with the ball at all times, and he's making plays.''

He sure is.

Mariota is a big reason why the Titans (6-6) sit only a half-game out of first in the AFC South at their bye, winners of five of their past eight.

The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 pick overall in 2015 out of Oregon struggled during a 1-3 start with four fumbles and five interceptions - five returned for touchdowns.

Since then, Mariota has thrown 21 TD passes with only three interceptions while also running for two more touchdowns. The Titans have gone three straight games without a single turnover.

''The sky's the limit with Marcus,'' tight end Delanie Walker said.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan: ''He's a quarterback I'll play for as long as they'll allow me to.''

Mariota's production has been impressive so far:

- Second in the AFC and fifth overall with a 101.9 passer rating this season.

- His 25 TD passes trail only New Orleans' Drew Brees (30), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (27) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan (26) this season. In franchise history, only George Blanda and Warren Moon have thrown more TD passes in a season.

- Ranks fourth in the NFL for most passes of at least 20 yards or longer with 46.

- Perfect inside an opponent's 20-yard line for his career with 32 TD passes and no interceptions.

- Posted a 100 passer rating or better with multiple TD passes in 10 games in his career, something only Dan Marino (14), Russell Wilson (12) and Kurt Warner (11) did during their first two NFL seasons.

- On a streak with eight straight games with two or more TD passes, only the second quarterback to have such a streak in his first or second NFL season. Marino had 10 in 1984 in Miami. Mariota's eight-game streak is the NFL's longest since Tom Brady did it in nine consecutive games to start the 2015 season for New England.

Mariota heard of that last streak after the Titans held onto a 27-21 win at Chicago last week. He said as a kid he grew up wishing he might be mentioned with some of those quarterbacks.

''As an athlete, I think you have to have the confidence and belief in yourself,'' Mariota said. ''To say I had envisioned joining some of these names would be tough to say.

''But I really believe in myself, and I hold myself to a high standard. The expectation for me is to be able to consistently be the best player that my team needs me to be. Going forward, I'll continue to do that.''

Better than Mariota's play may be the confidence he has given his teammates. This franchise won five games combined the past two seasons, and their only winning record since 2008 was 2011 when the Titans missed the playoffs at 9-7 on a tiebreaker.

''I think guys are starting to understand that we could be in the playoffs,'' Walker said.

Coach Mike Mularkey, given the full-time job in January, and first-year general manager Jon Robinson gave Mariota help. Mularkey simplified both the language and his playbook.

Robinson brought in 23 new players to start the season and cut starting cornerback Perrish Cox on Monday to help a defense ranked 25th against the pass.

With Jones one of two new starters on the offensive line, Tennessee ranks seventh, allowing only 18 sacks after giving up an NFL-worst 54 in 2015.

DeMarco Murray, picked up by Robinson from Philadelphia in a March trade, has made a strong case for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Murray has run for 1,043 yards, second-best in the NFL, and also has 45 catches for 309 yards and three more scores.

Along with Mariota and rookie Derrick Henry, the Titans rank third in averaging 141.5 yards rushing per game. That's their best since 2009 when Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards to salvage a 0-6 start.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense ranks fifth with 30 sacks and eighth against the run.

The Titans go into their bye a half-game out of first in the AFC South, though 1-3 in the division. They host Denver (7-4) with road trips at Kansas City (8-3) and Jacksonville (2-9) before Houston visits Jan. 1 with the division title possibly on the line.

''We're right where we want to be,'' Jones said.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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