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VOL. 42 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 12, 2018

He's back

Mariota finds his swagger, giving fans hope for rare 2nd-round playoff win

By Terry McCormick

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About a month ago, following a Dec. 10 loss at Arizona, Marcus Mariota showed a seldom-seen side of his personality.

Clearly dejected, he seemed flustered and distraught while answering questions in his post-game press conference, even answering that he was “pissed off” about his performance when asked why he seemed more bothered than usual following the Titans’ 12-7 loss to the struggling Cardinals.

A couple of days later, Mariota apologized for his press conference demeanor, saying he had gotten an earful from his mother for his behavior.

Most of the media probably didn’t give Mariota’s initial frustrations a second thought, figuring the third-year Titans quarterback had every right to be upset with how he and the offense had played that day – and for a good part of the season, for that matter.

A week later, facing a must-win season finale situation against Jacksonville and with the Titans clinging to a 15-10 lead, that same mannerly Mariota scrambled out of the pocket on third down and 5 with 2 minutes remaining, slamming Jaguars safety Barry Church helmet-first into the home turf with a vicious stiff-arm to the face en route to a 13-yard run and a first down.

Even more out of character, he popped out of his slide at midfield long enough to strike a defiant pose. Teammates, both offensive and defensive, rushed off the sidelines to celebrate his new-found swagger, which will be needed more than ever Saturday night when the Titans travel to New England as a two-touchdown underdog against the defending Super Bowl champs.

“The Silent Assassin,” veteran tight end Delanie Walker dubbed him after the game.

“I like body language like that,” Coach Mike Mularkey added. “It’s good for our team.”

“It was just me being me,” Mariota explains, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was showing an entirely different side. “Again, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. This is the time in the season where you’ve just got to lay it all on the line.”

That confident, healthy playmaker, the Mariota that blossomed as a second-year player before breaking a leg late in the season, was on full display Saturday when the Titans overcame a 21-3 halftime deficit to win 22-21, their first playoff win in 14 years.

The 18-point deficit tied for the second-largest for a road winner in NFL playoff history. The Cowboys came back from 21-3 down in the first half to beat the 49ers 30-28 in December 1972, and the Lions came back from 27-7 in the second half to beat the 49ers in December 1957.

It also was the fifth-largest comeback in franchise history, the biggest since a 24-21 win against the Giants on Nov. 26, 2006, when the Titans were down 21-0 midway through the second quarter. Rob Bironas won that game with a 49-yard field goal with :06 remaining.

‘Marcus is our leader’

A three-game December losing streak can spark dissention on an underachieving team, and that’s where the Titans found themselves going into that season-finale against Jacksonville. This is a team that was expected to win the AFC South and advance to the playoffs.

A loss to the Jags would likely have meant another postseason watching other teams play.

And much of that underperformance was resting on Mariota, who as a third-year quarterback was expected to take a leap forward.

His teammates apparently never lost faith.

“Marcus is our leader in the huddle,” says center Ben Jones, a sixth-year player. “He’s a guy who you can count on at all times. He’s the most focused guy. He’s the calmest guy always, and he’s a competitor. I wouldn’t want anybody else in the huddle with me.”

Receiver Rishard Matthews concurs.

“Good things happen to positive people, and Marcus is the most positive person I’ve ever been around,” says Matthews, also six-year veteran. “It just shows. He’s going to be at the ball, trying to make a play, whether the ball is in his hands or he’s trying to make a lead block.

“I’ve had multiple talks with Marcus, and every time it’s like, ‘Hey, we got it. Just stay in there. I got y’all.’ That’s what you want from a leader.

“That’s the way he plays all the time,” says left tackle Taylor Lewan, perhaps the emotional leader of the Titans offense, in chastising the media for what he perceived as unfair criticism of Mariota. “It’s time for you guys to start backing him up a little bit.

“I think it’s important that he gets the recognition he deserves,” Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says of his quarterback, Marcus Mariota, being congratulated here after throwing a second-half touchdown to himself against Kansas City on Saturday. “He’s an amazing quarterback, and it’s time you guys acknowledge that.”

-- Ap Photo/Ed Zurga

“I think it’s important that he gets the recognition he deserves. He’s an amazing quarterback, and it’s time you guys acknowledge that.”

Disappointing start

Most people expected the quarterback to pick right up where left off in 2016 when he threw 26 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions.

Instead, Mariota battled injuries and poor play from the outset of the season, finishing with only half the number of touchdown passes (13) and a career-high 15 interceptions.

There has been no shortage of explanations for Mariota’s drop-off this season, and there probably has been an element of truth in each reason offered to excuse away the inconsistency.

Some of the blame was placed on Mariota having to rehab the entire off-season from his broken fibula. More was heaped upon hamstring and knee injuries that cropped up in the regular season, limiting both his mobility and his ability to step into throws.

Others blamed the play-calling of offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, who has become an easy scapegoat for the Titans’ offensive woes. Even the run game’s struggles and the receiver inconsistencies have been under the microscope this season.

Whatever it was, Mariota’s usual answer as to why things weren’t going well remained the same: “I have to play better.” Never deflecting blame elsewhere, just “I have to play better.”

It wasn’t flashy and it wasn’t the headline-making answer most people wanted. But it was an honest one that resonated throughout the locker room and the organization.

Another level

The Titans’ ugly 15-10 win over Jacksonville not only served as a springboard to the playoffs, it also served notice that with the postseason on the line, that Mariota – healthier or not – would do whatever he could to will the Titans to victory.

On Saturday at noisy Arrowhead Stadium, Mariota calmly led the Titans back from down 21-3, doing the improbable and sometimes the unfathomable.

First, he not only threw the Titans first touchdown pass of the game – he also caught it. Mariota’s catch and stretch of a ball batted into the air by Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis began the Titans’ comeback took its place alongside other memorable NFL highlights.

“I got lucky there,” Mariota explained in the post-game press conference.

The play showed that Mariota’s competitiveness – the same zeal that put Church on the ground against Jacksonville – was alive and well, and his Titans teammates were eager to follow his lead wherever he might take them.

“We go as Marcus goes,” said wide receiver Eric Decker, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Mariota in the fourth quarter. “He has shown his personality the last couple of weeks and how tough he is, and how much of a leader he is.”

Even teammate Derrick Henry, who had a starring role of his own, marveled at his quarterback and fellow Heisman Trophy winner’s determination to win. Henry would see first-hand again late in the game, when he ran for a game-clinching first down ahead of a picture-perfect Mariota block.

“He can pass, he can run and he can block. He can do it all. He caught the ball, too. It was a great job by him, and I appreciate him,” Henry said.

Mariota’s value to the Titans Saturday went far beyond just his 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. And it went beyond the 46 yards he added on eight scrambles, complete with moving the chains three times on third downs.

His play is one of the primary reasons the Titans believe they have a shot at the world champion New England Patriots on Saturday night in the divisional playoffs. The Titans haven’t won a second-round game since 1999.

A ‘McNair-like’ effort

Former Titans general manager Floyd Reese, now a radio show host on 102.5 The Game, sees a quality in Mariota that he also saw in the last guy to guide Tennessee to a playoff victory – Steve McNair. Like McNair, Mariota’s true value cannot be measured in a box score or fantasy football numbers.

“Even though Marcus probably, in his dreams of his first playoff game, pictures himself throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, this game was more McNair-like for him,” Reese says. “We saw him do some things this game that you may never see again in your football life.

“Just the Derrick Henry run at the end of the game, where he got the block.

“He didn’t throw a pass or run the ball on that play, but when they showed pictures of him coming to sideline 10 or 12 guys there coming on the field to greet him based on throwing that block. That meant the world to them.”

Always a chance

While Mariota himself normally deflects credit to coaches and teammates, they are quick to point the finger right back at their quarterback.

Coach Mike Mularkey says people are now seeing what Mariota can do when he is healthy enough to play something close to his type of game.

“The difference from (Saturday) and a number of the games during the year where he didn’t have the ability to do some of the things we did, especially escaping the pocket and making some first downs …,” Mularkey says. “I think we had three third downs that he converted himself by running it. It shows you what we can do when he’s healthy.”

“I think the whole team knows that we have that chance. It affects the whole team. Everybody on that sideline, that we have a chance with him in there,” he adds

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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