Why the Titans might be the surprise playoff team in the AFC
Titans coach Mike Mularkey knew for the better part of 24 hours that he would attempt an onside kick to start Tennessee’s home game against Green Bay on Sunday. The play would catch the Packers off guard — because who really tries an onside on the opening kickoff? — but it also would assert Tennessee’s aggressiveness.
A small-market team that has wallowed in the cellar of one of the league’s worst divisions for most of the past eight years, the Titans are tired of being doormats. So Tennessee won the toss, elected to defer and tried an onside kick that the Titans failed to recover. It didn’t matter. Tennessee’s defense forced a three-and-out and then Marcus Mariota led five consecutive touchdown drives en route to a 47-25 win that brought them to 5-5.
"I was trying to gain momentum immediately and our team wanted to see it," Mularkey said afterward. "We got off the field defensively, it didn’t hurt us, but we need to be aggressive against this team. They score a lot of points and we had to try to steal a possession."
To accept Mularkey upon first glance is difficult. He failed in Buffalo and Jacksonville and there was little reason to be excited after he went 2-7 last season in place of Ken Whisenhunt. Tennessee’s promise of an "exotic smashmouth" offense was one of those eye-rolling, offseason comments that mean about as much as when players say they’ve never felt better when reporting to training camp.
Meanwhile, DeMarco Murray was coming off a down season in Philadelphia that hinted at his Dallas success being more a product of the Cowboys’ offensive line than his own talent. Delanie Walker returned following a 2015 season with 94 catches when the next-closest Titans receiver had just 36. And there were many questions about whether Mariota would flourish in Year 2 under an old-school offensive philosophy set forth by Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.
But through the first 10 games of the 2016 season, those fears mostly have been debunked. Only Ezekiel Elliott has more rushing yards than Murray (930), who anchors the second-best running attack in football. Still Mariota’s top target, Walker doesn’t have to shoulder all of the receiving load this season with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe helping. And Mariota is cutting down on his turnovers and keeping the Titans in every game this season.
Only the Falcons have more 20-plus-yard plays this season than the Titans, who are tied with San Diego at 44. Tennessee had seven such plays against the Packers, including a 75-yard touchdown run by Murray and two 30-plus-yard touchdown throws by Mariota.
So can Tennessee’s offense be characterized as a big-play offense? "That’s up to you guys," Mariota said on Sunday. "We are going to continue to do our best to make those plays; make those explosive plays. They do change field position, they create momentum, gives us an opportunity to ride on some momentum and get things going. So again, leave that up to you guys and hopefully we can make those plays week in and week out."
Sunday’s win was no doubt the biggest for the team since the Titans took Mariota No. 2 overall in the 2015 draft. It marked the first time since 2014’s Week 1 win over the Chiefs that Tennessee defeated a team that had been in the playoffs the previous season. Of course the Packers (4-5) have their own problems, but beating Aaron Rodgers in what essentially amounted to a neutral-site game with so many Packers fans must account for something.
Still, even though the Titans have matched their win total from the previous two years combined, it’s not enough right now. They sit in second place in the AFC South behind 6-3 Houston, and because of three very good teams in the AFC West, it seems that their only opportunity for a playoff berth is by winning the division. But a win next week against a confusing Colts team would be the first for Tennessee in Indianapolis since 2007, the year before Lucas Oil Stadium opened. If the Titans can get to Andrew Luck five times like they did to Rodgers, and if they can carve up the league’s third-worst defense like they did to Green Bay, Tennessee would be looking at its best record this late in the season since 2011.
Could this be the start of a real turnaround, a new era in Tennessee?
Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who joined the team last season, has been in the league since 2009. Tennessee has had just one winning season and no playoff appearances in that time, so Orakpo essentially knows his current employer as a perennial loser. But the tide has shifted this season. Of Tennessee’s five losses, only one has been by more than eight points.
"This is a different Titans team," Orakpo said. "This is not the typical team where you play so good for a half or three quarters, and they just fold in the fourth. We are going to be in it for the whole entire game. If it’s positive or negative, we are going to be in it."
This article originally appeared on SI.com