Are Tennessee Titans Finally Ready to Meet Lofty Expectations in 2017?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 17, 2017

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 16:  Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans throws a pass against the  Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on October 16, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It should be easy to embrace the Tennessee Titans as the next exciting team set to deliver an injection of youth into the NFL every week. But for most of 2017, they've made it so damn hard.

They teased then sputtered for the first five weeks. An impressive showing against the Seattle Seahawks ended in a 33-27 win, which should have been a statement victory. Then the roars from that week were followed by whimpers after a 57-14 beat-down loss to the Houston Texans, and a 16-10 thud at home against the rudderless Miami Dolphins.

Through it all, however, there was still a sense that when everything came together offensively—if quarterback Marcus Mariota was somewhat healthy, if Eric Decker and an impressive group of receivers showed up and if a powerful rushing offense kept doing its bulldozing—the 2017 Titans we expected could finally arrive.

We may have witnessed that during the second half of a 36-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts, a primetime triumph highlighted by 21 fourth-quarter points.

It was a win that encapsulated the Titans' season so far with one significant exception: The resilience of Mariota.

He led an offense that kept knocking on the door of the end zone before finally busting it down with this 53-yard bucket drop to wide receiver Taywan Taylor:

That was the second of three four-quarter Titans touchdowns. It came after Tennessee had scored 15 points over the first three periods and squandered two trips into the red zone. That included one where they settled for a field goal after having four snaps at or inside the Colts' 5-yard line.

There was frustration when drives stalled out, and the Titans had to kick five field goals. But there was also promise and hope masked by that disappointment. Bubbling below the surface was an offense waiting to pounce on a 30th-ranked Colts secondary that had given up 8.3 yards per pass attempt prior to Week 6.

Treading water for much of the game and producing any points at all was an accomplishment for a hobbled quarterback. Mariota missed Week 5 due to a hamstring injury, and with his usual speed zapped, he was forced into an uncomfortable situation.

He had to become a pocket passer, something that's still a little foreign to him. Being confined to the pocket is an appropriately spooky thought for Mariota as Halloween season approaches. And that showed, especially with his first-half interception thrown almost right at Colts outside linebacker John Simon, who was standing about four yards away.

It felt like a downward spiral was starting with that pick-six. But then a quarterback robbed of his athleticism, the weapon that makes him a unique threat, steadied himself.

There was a flicker of life late in the third quarter, starting with his 21-yard strike to Decker. Later in the same drive, he also connected with wide receiver Rishard Matthews on a pinpoint 16-yard throw down the right sideline.

That came on 3rd-and-12, a time when crushing disappointment should have darkened the Titans' soul. But instead, Mariota and Matthews marched forward on what became an 87-yard touchdown drive capped by a plunging three-yard run from DeMarco Murray at the goal line.

James Kenney/Associated Press

That drive was a moment for the Titans to exhale, and for us to nod and say, "Yes, this is the team we expected. And yes, there's the cannon-armed quarterback who can play the hero."

Mariota threw for 104 yards in the fourth quarter alone, which came after a first half with 108 yards. He was both resilient and forgetful while able to put first-half stumbles behind him and come through by powering a late offensive surge. The result was his fourth career 300-plus yard passing game (he finished with 306 yards), a completion percentage of 71.9, and most importantly, a win to keep the Titans hanging around in the annually muddled AFC South.

The real trick now is staying on top of that division. To do that, the Titans need to find a way to keep Mariota upright and healthy, as he's missed six games over three seasons. Once he's mended, the real Titans might show up more often.

Tennessee can still win with Mariota at less than full health, and do it with their two-headed backfield that ran for 171 yards Monday. But it gets a lot easier when an athletically gifted quarterback is throwing to young, explosive targets like Taylor and Matthews.

If the fourth quarter is a sign of what's ahead, then winning could indeed get easier fast. But predicting anything with these 2017 Titans has led to plenty of headaches and heartbreak already.