Mariota already benched with Winston looking to bounce back
The previous time these teams met was Sept. 13, 2015, pitting that year's top two draft picks against each other, and Mariota turned in a nearly perfect performance in a big win. Now they meet again Sunday with Winston trying to shake off a career-worst five interceptions Oct. 13 in London and Mariota cheering from the sideline.
Both Winston and Mariota are focusing only on what's next.
"I've got to focus on me," Winston said Wednesday when asked about himself and Mariota. "I've got to make sure I'm doing things I need to do for this side. We're focused on getting a win against Tennessee."
Mariota was in the Titans' locker room only briefly Wednesday and hit the field early to start warming up before practice. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner made clear last week after the Titans announced Ryan Tannehill would be starting at quarterback that he's not thinking of what lies ahead.
"I don't think for me it's in any good mindset to do that," Mariota said. "My main focus is just to be here with my teammates and support them the way that I can."
The NFL already has had 87 of 106 games (82.1 percent) feature at least one starting quarterback age 26 or younger — the most in any season yet through Week 7. Those quarterbacks also are winning more starts (63 of 116) than in any other season through seven weeks.
Winston and Mariota are 25 and being paid $20.9 million each after the Bucs and Titans picked up the fifth-year options for their quarterbacks in the spring of 2018.
That hefty tab is why the Titans waited until the worst performance of Mariota's career to bench him in a 16-0 loss to Denver, giving him every chance to work through a stretch of only one touchdown in 10 quarters.
Mariota had been the only quarterback to start every game this season without a turnover and had the NFL's longest active streak without an interception. His franchise-record streak without an interception ended at 205, and he was picked off twice before being benched with a 9.5 passer rating after going 7 of 18 for 63 yards.
With quick, decisive passes, Tannehill helped the Titans (3-4) look like the offense they expected in a 23-20 win over the Chargers last week.
"That's solely on my shoulders," Mariota said. "I had an opportunity to play, and I didn't make the most of it. I'm going to learn and grow from it. This is an opportunity for me to grow as a person and as a player, and I'm going to do everything I can to help Ryan and help the team win."
Winston struggled in the Bucs' opener with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 31-17 loss to San Francisco. But the Bucs quarterback had 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions over the next four games including throwing for 385 yards with four TDs and one interception in the Bucs' 55-40 win over the Rams on Sept. 29.
He's 10th in the NFL with 1,771 yards passing. The Bucs also rank ninth in the NFL averaging 269.5 yards passing a game.
Then came London where Carolina intercepted five passes, and Winston also lost a fumble when sacked and stripped of the ball. Coach Bruce Arians, who's coached Winston for six games, likes how his quarterback has responded with the Bucs (2-4) coming off their bye.
"He's come out like it's water off his back," Arians said. "I like that about him. It's not like he's sitting around sulking. ... I think he'll play really well."
Winston said he understands a quarterback has good and bad games.
"The only thing is when you have bad games, you have to hope that you won it," Winston said.
Mariota has cycled through three different head coaches in Tennessee along with four offensive coordinators and five different play-callers. Byron Leftwich is only the second different coordinator Winston has had with Arians his third head coach.
But the Buccaneers have never signed a quarterback they drafted to a second contract. Asked about reports the Bucs are ready to move on without Winston, Arians called that, "Good speculation."
"For me, it's just play it all out," Arians said. "See if we can correct mistakes. Can we get better? Can we play like we did in Los Angeles six weeks in a row ... and not have that game we had (in London)."