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VOL. 41 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 13, 2017

A win vs. Indy? Finally? Depends on Mariota

Updated 1:10PM
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Titans backup QB Matt Cassel has been unimpressive in second half relief against the Texans and starting at Miami. The 13-year veteran hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2010 with the Kansas City Chiefs. This is his second season with the Titans, and Sunday’s game at Miami was his second start with the team.

-- Ap Photo/Wilfredo Lee

If the Titans are serious about winning the AFC South division and securing the playoff berth that goes with it, it’s time to draw a line in the standings.

Their Monday Night Football game against Indianapolis looms as an opportunity to send a message to the rest of the division and perhaps to themselves. It’s time to put up or shut up. If not now, when?

The Titans have been easy pickings in the division for far too long. It’s high time they start beating division competition. Another way of looking at it: It doesn’t do any good to beat Seattle if you’re going to turn around and get outclassed by AFC South rival Houston the very next week.

While Mike Mularkey has done some good things since replacing Ken Whisenhunt as head coach midway through the 2015 season, he’s struggled in the division. Of his 13 wins with the Titans, only four are against AFC South teams. And one of them was the 2016 season finale against Houston when the Texans rested their starters.

On paper, the MNF matchup with Indianapolis is not a make-or-break game for the Titans. The division remains jumbled after five weeks. Everything is still up for grabs and is likely to remain so for at least another month.

Just the same, there’s no time like the present to make a statement by finally taking care of business against other teams in the division.

Last season, the Titans went just 2-4 against AFC South opponents. They were 1-5 against the division in 2015. The futility is nothing new. Over the last six seasons, the Titans are 10-22 in head-to-head matchups with AFC South opponents.

Indianapolis has been a particularly tough nut for the Titans to crack. They haven’t beaten the Colts since 2011. That’s the season when Curtis Painter filled in at quarterback for the injured Peyton Manning. Since mid-2008, the Titans are 1-16 against the Colts. Clearly, something has got to give.

Like Titans outside linebacker Derrick Morgan said: “We haven’t been able to pull off a win against them in a while.”

So far this season, division games have brought out the best and the worst in the Titans. Their 37-16 conquest at Jacksonville in Week 2 featured total domination in the second half. Their 57-14 no-show at Houston in Week 4 was painfully familiar for those who have charted this franchise’s struggles over the past half-dozen seasons.

The Houston debacle was particularly troubling. The Titans’ offensive line couldn’t match up with the Texans’ defensive front, which does not bode well for the upcoming rematch with Houston, even after J.J. Watt’s season-ending injury. And if rookie Deshaun Watson continues to play like he did against the Titans, the Texans will present more problems than previously expected.

Quarterback is a position where most of us believed the Titans have a clear advantage over the rest of the AFC South, at least until Andrew Luck heals and gets back up to speed for the Colts. But in the Houston-Tennessee game, rookie Watson outplayed third-year pro Marcus Mariota. That just can’t happen if the Titans are going to close the gap and ever overtake the Texans.

It is abundantly clear that the Titans’ offense will go only as far as Mariota can take it. For the Titans to be successful, he must be on the field and he must be productive. When he’s in a T-shirt and shorts on the sideline, as was the case in the Miami game last week, the Titans are in deep trouble.

With all due respect to Matt Cassel, the Titans aren’t going anywhere with him at quarterback. He played poorly in the watching-paint-dry loss at Miami. Granted, Cassel wasn’t protected very well by his offensive line and the running game never materialized, but he still has to throw the ball better. There were a few opportunities to make things happen in the passing game but Cassel couldn’t deliver.

Frankly, it makes you wonder why Titans General Manager Jon Robinson didn’t try harder to upgrade at backup quarterback in the offseason. It’s clear the Titans had no interest in signing Colin Kaepernick, but there were other options.

Given Mariota’s injury history (he has now missed six starts in his three NFL seasons), it is imperative that you have a capable backup. Cassel’s best days are far behind him.

It wasn’t so long ago that things were looking up for the Titans, particularly in the division. In their beat-down victory at Jacksonville, they appeared to be the class of the AFC South. When they gutted out a home win over Seattle, they momentarily established an identity, particularly on offense. Mularkey’s so-called “exotic smashmouth” philosophy was on full display.

And that’s what makes back-to-back losses at Houston and Miami so troubling. Yes, the defense sprung a leak at Houston but the offense also didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The Titans managed just 86 rushing yards against the Texans. They followed that with 69 rushing yards against Miami.

Something is missing. At the outset of the season, it looked like the Titans had the best running back tandem in the NFL with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. But Henry has been a non-factor in the last two losses, with a combined 16 yards on 10 carries against Houston and Miami.

Likewise, the offensive line has sprung some leaks. Left tackle Taylor Lewan has a gimpy knee. Right tackle Jack Conklin looks like he’s fallen into a sophomore slump after making All Pro as a rookie. Running lanes are not being opened and pass protection has been hit or miss.

Despite the recent slippage, though, there’s still time to turn things around. It’s possible if not downright likely that a 10-6 record will win the AFC South. I’m not so sure that a 9-7 record won’t get you into a tie for the division title.

That’s why the Indianapolis game looms so large. It is the first of four remaining games in the division. Win this one and you’re back in the thick of things. Lose it and you’re playing catch-up. And, frankly, the Titans have been playing catch-up for far too long.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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