The Tennessee Titans are a hard team to figure out.
When last we saw them, they were blowing a fourth-quarter lead in Week 7 to the Indianapolis Colts—their 10th consecutive loss to their AFC South rivals.
In Week 8, however, it was a much different story. The Titans were dominant in a 36-22 dismantling of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was their best performance—a blowout win (garbage-time scores notwithstanding) that thrusts the 4-4 Titans into the thick of the race to win the NFL's worst division.
More importantly, it showed a team that's resided in the cellar of the AFC South in each of the past two seasons what it's capable of when firing on all cylinders.
Actually, to say Tennessee was firing on all cylinders in the first half is an understatement. The Titans moved the ball at will, piling up 354 yards of offense and 27 points in the first 30 minutes—the most prolific half, yardage-wise, by any team in the NFL in the first half this season.
You name it; the Titans did it. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was nearly flawless in the first half, passing for 219 yards and a touchdown while missing on only three attempts. It was the first time in Mariota's career he's thrown for 200-plus yards in the first half, and he punctuated that perfection with a 36-yard dime to wide receiver Kendall Wright early in the second quarter, as the Titans showed:
Tennessee Titans @Titans
Kendall only needed 1 yard to reach 3,000 career receiving yards. But Kendall is an overachiever. https://t.co/nn1PqtQv9A10/28/2016, 1:15:18 AM
Tennessee was just as successful moving the ball on the ground. Tailbacks DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for 110 yards on 18 carries in the first half. Each back also found the end zone, with Murray punching it in from 14 yards out for his sixth rushing score of the season.
Mariota was quick to credit the Titans' one-two punch in the backfield while speaking to the NFL Network's postgame show. "To be able to run the football the way that we do makes my job and the whole offense's job a lot easier," he said.
Never mind that it was Mariota who threw the key block on Murray's score.
The defense was stout as well. Granted, it got an assist from Blake Bortles and a Jacksonville offense that was beyond awful early, but the Titans allowed only 60 total yards in the first half and a minuscule five yards on the ground.
The beatdown continued right into the second half. After the Jaguars took the half-opening kick and drove for a touchdown, the Titans followed suit with Mariota's second scoring pass of the night. It was the sixth consecutive possession on which the Titans scored—the first time the team has accomplished that feat since 2007.
By the time the dust settled, the game was filled with numbers that no doubt warmed Titans head coach Mike Mularkey's heart. The Titans gained 494 yards of total offense, including a staggering 214 on the ground. Murray rushed for 123 yards on 21 carries. Mariota threw for 270 yards and completed 81.6 percent of his passes.
And the Titans won by a much wider margin than the final score indicates.
The number that probably had Mularkey and his team smiling widest was four. As in Tennessee's fourth win of the season—more than the Titans won in either 2014 or 2015, and only one short of the team's win total in those campaigns combined.
At 4-4, the Titans are now only a half-game back of the Houston Texans in the AFC South. It's the latest in a season the Titans have been a .500 football team since Week 9 of the 2013 campaign.
Granted, it isn't time to start making playoff plans just yet. There are problems that still need to be fixed. The inability to hold that lead last week against the Colts. A Week 1 loss to the Vikings at home where the Titans led at halftime but collapsed late. A 17-10 home setback against Oakland in which the Titans couldn't move the ball against a shaky Raiders defense.
In their last 18 home games against teams who aren't the Jaguars, the Titans are 1-17. And given the one victory was a Week 6 win over the winless Cleveland Browns, that barely counts.
Murray allowed to the NFL Network that the Titans need to play more consistently: "We played well. I think that today was the first time out of eight games that we played well in all three phases of the game as a team. We can continue to learn from this...We've got to take a couple of days off, relax and then go watch some film and get better."
But each of Tennessee's four losses in 2016 have been by single digits, and there are numerous positive signs.
Mariota entered Week 8 ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in touchdown passes despite a cast of receivers who aren't exactly household names. Thursday marked the third time in four games the second-year signal-caller has posted a passer rating well over 100 (148.1). And Wright's return has provided a boost to the passing game.
The ground game hasn't needed one. Even before Thursday's blowout, the Titans' "exotic smashmouth" rushing attack ranked third in the NFL, at over 143 yards a game. Murray already has more yards on the ground in 2016 (756) than he had all of last year in Philadelphia (702).
And lest it get lost in the offensive accolades, the Titans came into Week 8 ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense under the ageless Dick LeBeau.
Are the Tennessee Titans a real contender in the AFC? No. But they are an improving young football team that can run the ball as well as anyone in the NFL and play defense. They're a team with a 22-year-old quarterback who seems get better by the week.
And they're a team playing in a division where nine wins brought home the crown last year.
But there's no denying that this year's incarnation of the Titans is light-years better than the last two. Mularkey has the team heading in the right direction. The Titans are doing something they haven't in quite a while.
They're figuring out how to win.
If they can do that with consistency, what would have been called laughable a couple of months ago will become a real possibility.
The Tennessee Titans—AFC South champions.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.
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