[Update, 11:31 ET: The Texans clinched the AFC South on Saturday night, thereby eliminating the Titans from playoff contention.]
The Titans entered the day tied for the lead in the AFC South, hoping for their first trip to the playoffs since the 2008 season. They’re leaving it without their starting quarterback and with those postseason hopes in serious jeopardy.
Tennessee’s hurdle was low thanks to the brilliant fortune of a Week 16 matchup against a Jaguars team that fired its coach last week after its ninth consecutive loss. Win Saturday and they would be able to seal the division by beating the Texans — a team currently unsure whether to play Brock Osweiler or Tom Savage at quarterback — in Week 17.
Somehow, though, Jacksonville showed up Saturday and Fetty Wapped the Titans, winning 38–17. Blake Bortles played real football, as opposed to what he’d done in the first 14 games of the year, when he threw passes haphazardly while other people played real football around him. Now, the Titans would be eliminated from the playoffs with a Texans win tonight.
But worse than that, quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered an injury in the fourth quarter, and it immediately appeared to be pretty bad. He needed an air cast and was carted off the field. Shortly after the game, the Titans confirmed that he had broken his fibula:
Mariota was enjoying one of the best season by a Tennessee quarterback. His 26 touchdowns are the fourth-most in a single season in franchise history, behind two George Blanda seasons and Warren Moon’s 1990 campaign. Those other three seasons occurred while the team was still the Houston Oilers.
We knew Mariota had talent based on his Heisman Trophy–generating time at Oregon and his decent rookie season, but this year he added poise and consistency, and had the Titans on the verge of ending their playoff drought. Just two years into his career, he looks like the franchise passer that Tennessee hoped for when it picked him second overall in the 2015 draft.
Professional backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw a pick-six in relief of Mariota. Even if the Titans remain alive after this week, they might not be capable of pulling off a win with him at the helm.
In a vacuum, the Titans missing the playoffs wouldn’t be so bad — it happened last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and a few years before that as well. And a season-ending injury in Week 16 doesn’t mean a whole lot: Pretty much every injury is season-ending at this point.
But we’re not in a vacuum, and so the timing of Mariota’s injury is devastating. The Titans haven’t been relevant in nearly a decade, and post–Steve McNair, the team’s quarterback situation has only seen brief glimmers of hope. But Tennessee was finally enjoying two things it hadn’t experienced in a long time: real hopes of postseason participation and, more importantly, a quarterback who looked reliable in the short term and capable of greatness in the long term. To lose a player of that caliber as well as your postseason ambitions in one week would be utterly crushing. One hopes the injury merely ends Mariota’s season, and doesn’t actually set back his promising career.