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VOL. 131 | NO. 221 | Friday, November 4, 2016

Titans? Win the AFC South? Sure, It’s Possible

DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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In a remarkable change of course over recent seasons, the Tennessee Titans entered the month of November still relevant in the AFC South race.

The Titans are a much-improved team with a healthy Kendall Wright on the field. He missed the early season with a hamstring injury.

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

And you know what? I believe the Titans are going to remain relevant – and then some. I can make the case that this team, currently 4-4, is going to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

OK, consider the source. I have a rather checkered past as a prognosticator. I picked Custer at Little Big Horn and had Mondale in ’84. Take it for what it’s worth

But I’m starting to like the Titans’ odds. They’re no longer an easy out. This team has real resolve, a quality that has been missing for years.

Look, I’m not saying the Titans have emerged as a top-tier NFL franchise. This team has serious shortcomings in terms of star power and overall skill.

It’s just that the three most important factors in real estate – location, location, location – also affect the NFL standings. And the Titans happen to be located in the AFC South.

Simply put, you don’t have to be a great team to win this division. Far from it. That’s how weak the competition is.

The Titans are one game behind Houston and a game clear of Indianapolis in the division. Things should get interesting in the second half of the season, if only because there are no sure things with the AFC South. This is the only division in the league in which none of its teams has scored more points than it has allowed this season.

Right now, the Texans and Titans are the best of a bad lot in the AFC South. By winning three of their last four games, the Titans have rebounded from a 1-3 start. The way they have stayed the course has impressed their coach, Mike Mularkey.

“I’m really proud of this football team,” he says. “I really enjoy being around this team. I think they care about each other. … I just like how our guys compete, how important it is to them, how they come in here and work every day. It’s all business.”

Based on the Bill Parcells concept of keeping score (“You are what your record says you are,” he famously uttered), these Titans are better than the previous two editions.

With four victories at the halfway point, they’ve exceeded the total number of wins of the 2014 and ’15 teams. Their next win will equal the previous two teams’ combined victory total.

The last time the Titans were 4-4 at the halfway point in the season was 2013, Mike Munchak’s final season as coach. That team finished 7-9.

Here’s more good news: Of the Titans’ eight remaining games, three are against AFC South teams. That helps balance out such challenges as home games against Green Bay and Denver and a trip to Kansas City.

Granted, the Titans already have lost to Houston and Indianapolis this season. In fact, the Titans have lost 10 straight to the Colts. Something’s got to give in the second half of the season if the Titans are going to make a run at the divisional title.

Everybody else beats up on the AFC South. Houston is 3-3 against non-division opponents, including a win over Detroit last Sunday. Indianapolis is 2-3 outside the division. Jacksonville is 1-4 in non-division games.

The Titans are 3-2 outside the AFC South compared to their 1-2 record in the division, with wins over Detroit, Miami and Cleveland. Their losses to Minnesota and Oakland don’t look so bad now.

In sum, the divisional competition is mediocre at best, which is nothing new. You have to go back to 2010 to find a season where the AFC South was truly competitive, top to bottom.

Everybody has glaring weaknesses, to wit:

Houston’s defense has adjusted to J.J. Watt’s season-ending back injury, but quarterback Brock Osweiler is struggling with both his accuracy and his judgment. Osweiler has thrown as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (9).

Indianapolis is as close to a one-man show as any team in the NFL. Any time you have Andrew Luck throwing the ball, you have a chance. But the Colts do a terrible job protecting Luck (he’s been sacked a league-high 31 times) and 33-year-old Frank Gore can only do so much in the running game behind that offensive line.

And then there is Jacksonville. Based on what we saw in the Titans’ 36-22 domination last week, the less said the better. The Jaguars looked unmotivated at times, clueless at other times. Quarterback Blake Bortles looks gun-shy, and it’s doubtful a change at offensive coordinator will fix that in the short term.

As for the Titans, they are on a definite uptick. Among the primary reasons: Dick LeBeau’s makeover of the defense and the stabilizing of the offensive line. And don’t forget first-year G.M. Jon Robinson’s acquisition of running back DeMarco Murray. I don’t know what is more impressive – Murray’s performance on the field or his leadership off it. He is the consummate professional.

Then there is the play of quarterback Marcus Mariota. After a slow start this season, Mariota has settled down. His performance during the string of three wins in four games is telling. His passer ratings in those three games: 117.5, 132.6, 95.8 and 148.1. The game against Jacksonville produced the second-best passer rating of his pro career, surpassed only by the 158.3 in his NFL debut at Tampa Bay.

Mariota also has stayed healthy, which is a marked difference from last season. By this time in 2015, he had missed two starts due to injury. This season, he’s taken every meaningful snap. The Titans were in such control against Jacksonville that backup Brad Cassel came in for mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.

This kind of stability and production has made a huge difference. Mediocre quarterback play is one of the reasons the Titans haven’t threatened in the AFC South since 2011. Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger simply couldn’t get it done.

With Mariota coming into his own, the Titans finally have a franchise quarterback around which to build.

Mariota still must learn how to deal with a heavy pass rush. In the loss to Indianapolis, Mariota was efficient when the pocket was clean but struggled badly when the Colts got after him with a pass rush.

According to Pro Football Focus, his passer rating in that game was 108.7 when not pressured and 41.4 when under the gun.

It also helps that Kendall Wright is finally back up and running after missing most of preseason camp and all of the September schedule with a hamstring injury.

Wright gives the Titans a playmaking wide receiver that was missing earlier in the season. His 36-yard touchdown catch of a Mariota rainbow forced Jacksonville’s defense to back off, creating more running room for Murray and Derrick Henry.

There are weaknesses, to be sure. Cornerback play is spotty. Linebackers have been exposed in pass coverage. Offensively, wide receivers have not made enough big plays.

And don’t forget that Mariota sometimes looks like exactly what he is – a second-year NFL quarterback.

Overall, though, the improvement is clear. And if the Titans continue on their current arc, they could win the division.

Imagine that.

David Climer can be reached at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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