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Marcus Mariota, Titans Are Emerging as a Legitimate AFC Dark Horse

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 13, 2018

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) leaves the field after the Titans beat the New England Patriots in an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans won 34-10. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
James Kenney/Associated Press

Two falls ago, few expected the Atlanta Falcons to reach Super Bowl LI. Last fall, even fewer expected the Philadelphia Eagles to win Super Bowl LII. And while both of those teams had flashed some championship potential by mid-November, it's fair to wonder if we're witnessing the early stages of another dark horse's emergence in the fall of 2018. 

That dark horse could be the Houston Texans (who have won six in a row to take the AFC South lead at 6-3) or the Los Angeles Chargers (who have won six in a row to take firm control of a wild-card spot at 7-2) or the Chicago Bears (who have won three straight to take the NFC North lead at 6-3). 

But what about the Tennessee Titans

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 11: Head coach Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans watches the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots at Nissan Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Probably still a dark horse of dark horses, the Titans might finally be living up to the talent on their roster following back-to-back double-digit victories over the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots within a six-day span. 

The first statement came last Monday night in North Texas, where the Cowboys are 3-0 with an average margin of victory of 14 points in games against teams not named the Titans. There, Tennessee overcame a rough start before bullying Dallas for three quarters in a hostile prime-time environment. 

Then on short rest, the Titans shocked the football world by pounding a Pats team that hadn't lost since Week 3. The 34-10 score represented New England's most lopsided loss in four years. 

Evan Silva @evansilva

#Titans are coming. Last 3 games: 1-point loss to 6-2 #Chargers the #Titans let slip on final possession 2-touchdown beatdown of #Cowboys on road 24-point bestdown of #Patriots * Mariota is finally healthy & offense turning a corner under McVay/KyleShan disciple Matt LaFleur

Critically, it seems a Week 8 bye served Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota well. The fourth-year No. 2 overall pick out of Oregon failed to take off as so many expected in his third season and may have been severely affected during the first half of this season by nerve damage stemming from a Week 1 elbow injury that caused numbness in two fingers on his throwing hand. 

The 25-year-old threw five interceptions to only three touchdown passes while posting a 78.5 passer rating during the first seven weeks of the 2018 season, but against Dallas and New England he threw four touchdown passes to zero interceptions while posting a 122.2 rating. He also rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown. 

It's not as though Tennessee was an utter disappointment prior to this potential turnaround. Even as Mariota seemingly regressed while highly touted rookie wide receiver Corey Davis struggled last season, they managed to produce a winning record and "earn" a road playoff victory over a self-destructive Kansas City Chiefs team.

They also started this season 3-1, with two of those victories coming over 2017 conference finalists Philadelphia and Jacksonville and the other coming against the now-streaking Texans. 

But those wins came by just three points each, and after that they scored just 31 total points in three consecutive losses. 

They've lacked consistency, and we don't know if that has changed. We're working with a mere two-game sample, but this marks the first time they've won consecutive games by multiscore margins since 2010. On the road against Dallas and at home against New England, that's no joke. 

There's also a wider range of evidence that the Titans defense in particular is legitimately robust. Under the tutelage of former Bill Belichick disciples Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees, that unit has surrendered a league-low 16.8 points per game, and that number is 15.5 if you exclude a 27-20 Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

They haven't given up more than 27 points since allowing 40 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road on short rest nearly a calendar year ago, and they've allowed just 16.9 points per game ever since that outing on Nov. 16, 2017.

Vrabel and Pees have significantly improved the defense, and on that side of the ball it appears they have a blueprint for slowing down the AFC's defending champion. That alone makes Tennessee dangerous. But what if Mariota has turned a corner as well? What if Davis has finally arrived after catching 13 passes for 181 yards during this two-game tear? What if backs Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry—who have a combined 500 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns in the team's last three gamesare finally taking off together? 

The Titans already knew they had a top-notch offensive line, and that group should only improve when star right tackle Jack Conklin recovers from the concussion that kept him out against the Pats. But they're deep there anyway and even deeper on defense, which makes them less vulnerable to the potential impact of injuries. 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

"The Titans are one of the few teams capable of slowing down explosive offenses in today’s NFL and their development on offense makes them an AFC sleeper down the stretch." @PFF_Steve's Monday morning takeaway.

Jurrell Casey is putting together another Pro Bowl-caliber season up front, but he's well-supported by defensive backs Kevin Byard, Adoree' Jackson, Logan Ryan, Kenny Vaccaro and—although he has struggled thus far—Malcolm Butler. They also benefit from the experience of veteran linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Brian Orakpo, while rookie linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry have already flashed. 

Louis Riddick @LRiddickESPN

Watch the defensive tape of the #Titans. They at least TRY to challenge offenses both with aggressive man coverage, quick match zone coverage, and a multiple pressure package. And guess what? It works when executed! That’s the Vrabel effect! 👊🏿💪🏿

It's hard to find any crippling weak spots.

There's no guarantee Mariota stays hot, and it's possible Davis or the running game will falter. Even if none of that happens, the passing game might eventually fall victim to its lack of depth at receiver, especially with tight end Delanie Walker out for the remainder of the season with a dislocated ankle. 

Still, the AFC is wide-open. Tennessee just slayed the reigning king of that castle. They did the same thing in January to the conference's current leader of the pack. And although the Chiefs look stronger now than then, they're still relying on a young quarterback, a coach who may be cursed in the playoffs and a defense that is exploitable. The Steelers are rolling but prone to slumps, and the Titans went toe-to-toe with the streaking Chargers at a neutral site before Tennessee got hot.

So why not Tennessee?

The Titans are broadly talented and deep. They can finesse you or intimidate you—or both. And they appear to be getting hot at the right time.

Maybe even hot enough to make an unexpected run deep into January. 

          

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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