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The Titans Are Suddenly the Favorites in the AFC South

And they’re doing it without much from Marcus Mariota

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Titans beat the Chiefs 19–17 Sunday for their third straight victory. Now they’re tied with the Texans for the top spot in their division, and while the entire body of work they’ve put in this season has been fairly mediocre, the team is positioned well to make the playoffs. Is Tennessee for real? Robert Mays and Kevin Clark discuss that on The Ringer NFL Show.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

We Could Be Heading Toward a Tennessee–Kansas City Rematch

Robert Mays: Tennessee winning, Houston winning is a good place to start because that allows both of them to keep pace in the AFC South, and right now it seems like we are cruising for those teams to play each other in Week 17 for the division.

Kevin Clark: If you were to look at all of these mediocre teams, would you call them mediocre at this point?

R.M.: I’d still call them mediocre, although Tennessee has really impressed me lately. I know it was minus-1 [degrees] in Kansas City yesterday, and there aren’t going to be a ton of points in some of those games, but we’re still talking about a KC offense that’s been able to put up some points as of late. They found some playmakers — Tyreek Hill made another huge play yesterday — [but] Tennessee really limited them.

K.C.: I think the Tennessee defense, they had [four] straight weeks where they decreased the points they allowed. It went up a little bit, but they still obviously played an amazing game on Sunday. This team is deep. Jon Robinson has done a great job. Mike Mularkey’s done a great job. I mean at this point, knowing that the Colts are so inconsistent and knowing that the Houston Texans are the Houston Texans, I would have to assume that the Tennessee Titans are going to win this division.

R.M.: I would put my money on the Titans as well. And if that does happen, you know what’s kind of fun? Kansas City or Oakland is probably going to win that [first] wild card. Now Oakland obviously has the inside track [to win the division] with that win yesterday. [So] if [Tennessee] does win the division, that means they might get Kansas City again in Round 1.

K.C.: I think if you play this game 10 times, the Chiefs probably win nine of them.

R.M.: That’s probably true, but [the Titans] get [the Chiefs] at home if they were to play. I wouldn’t mind seeing those two teams play again.

Do the Titans Need More From Marcus Mariota?

K.C.: Do you think that the Titans need more from Mariota, or do you like this sort of ground-and-pound, rely-on-defense type thing? Because at this point, Mariota’s passer rating yesterday was [68]. The week before that [it] was 45. The last time he had a touchdown pass was three weeks ago against the Bears. So it’s been even longer since he’s thrown a touchdown against [a real] NFL team. And so at this point, they’re going to rely on everyone except Mariota. Do you think Mariota needs to take a leap for them to win a playoff game?

R.M.: I don’t know if he needs to make a leap. I feel like the way they’ve constructed this team, they don’t have any pass catchers. I mean, it’s Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews. That’s not the track to a really good passing offense. They built this team to run the ball.

K.C.: They’re using the backs [in the passing game] a little bit now too, which I kind of liked.

R.M.: It’s not necessarily that [Mariota] has to be better. It’s that this offense isn’t built for him to be that much better. So I’m not sure what they’re going to do against a real defense — which Kansas City and Denver undoubtedly are.

K.C.: DeMarco Murray has five receptions for 52 yards. I thought that was pretty good yesterday, but yeah I agree with you. This offense — and I talked to Mike Mularkey about it in the preseason — was built for this. They were built for December football and for Marcus Mariota winning a game with no touchdowns and one interception and only taking one sack. This was going to be a max-protect type team, and it’s working.

The Two-Point Conversion Was the Right Call

K.C.: Did you see it coming when they went for two?

R.M.: No.

K.C.: Because that was the first time in 20 years a team has gone for two that early in a game when trying to win the game.

R.M.: Did you disagree [with the decision]? I kind of loved it.

K.C.: No, I kind of loved it, and they won the game. No one does that. And I was so excited by the fact they were going for it.

R.M.: Yeah, and [in] those conditions on the road against a team that’s better than you. I feel like that’s probably the [right] move.

K.C.: It’s one of those things, and we still have this old-world mentality in football where if [Mularkey] makes it he’s a genius and if he doesn’t make it he’s an idiot, OK. If Ryan Succop hadn’t made a long field goal to win the game, people [would be] saying, “Mike Mularkey, that’s a bonehead-of-the-week type thing.” I like the boldness, but I do understand that there’s still going to be a lot of criticism because there’s still a lot of old world in media out there.

R.M.: [Lions head coach] Jim Caldwell punted with five minutes left when he was down by two scores. He was on his own [19-yard] line, but you’re not getting the ball back twice with five minutes left, that’s just not going to happen. I never am for the conservative choice in those moments.