NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans are confident that this moment isn’t too big for Marcus Mariota. He can handle going up against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, they say. If anything, Mariota can show he’s ready to be a fixture among the AFC playoff quarterbacks that have a chance to win anywhere.
The Titans have a chance — yes, a slim one — but a chance nonetheless to pull off a shocking upset in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Saturday night because of their third-year quarterback from Hawaii and what he means to his team.
It showed last Saturday at Kansas City when a half-dozen teammates erupted from the Titans’ bench to mob Mariota after he delivered a physical block on Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo that paved the way for Derrick Henry to get a game-clinching first down on third-and-10.
Quarterbacks just don’t do that these days, but the Titans’ starter does.
“I kinda blacked out because I was so geeked off what I seen,” said linebacker Derrick Morgan, one of the players who jumped on Mariota in celebration. “You don’t see quarterbacks blocking and doing such a selfless play like that.”
Tight end Delanie Walker added: “It’s what he does after he makes the play. He stands up and gives you that ‘uh huh,’ that fire. That’s what gets everybody geeked.”
The 2017 season has filled with more downs than ups for Mariota. In what was supposed to be his Year 3 boom, he turned in his worst NFL regular season, throwing for a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions.
But he’s peaking at the right time. Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Mariota is the healthiest he has been all season and there’s no coincidence in that correlation. The biggest difference we’ve seen is Mariota consistently extending plays with his legs and right arm, running for key first downs and putting his body on the line for his team.
Plays such as the block, the TD pass to himself earlier in that game or the stiff-arm he delivered to Jacksonville’s Barry Church in Week 17 to essentially clinch the game have elevated the Titans and given them hope that behind No. 8 they can beat anybody.
Yes, even New England.
“The guy is a magician out there. He does everything we can ever ask him,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “Some things haven’t gone his way here and there. The guy just plays hard consistently. He’s a guy who can get around — he’s not loud or obnoxious like me. He just gets it done.
“He’s the leader that we deserve on this team.”
Simply put, Mariota has an “it” factor that transcends his rough Year 3 numbers. The Titans also believe it can neutralize the disadvantages they may have going into Foxborough.
Mariota leads the NFL with five fourth-quarter/overtime comebacks or game-winning drives, including the one in Kansas City last week where he helped the Titans launch the second-biggest road playoff comeback in NFL history.
“He’s a man on a mission,” receiver Corey Davis said.
Saturday, Mariota will square off against maybe the most clutch QB of all time in Brady. But Brady is not unbeatable, as Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was quick to point out.
Mariota’s legs figure to play a bigger role in Saturday’s matchup than normal as the Patriots have had struggles with mobile QBs. Mariota has 106 rushing yards over the past two weeks, and nine of his 14 carries (four kneel downs included in yardage) resulted in first downs.
If New England takes away what the Titans do best — run with Henry and Mariota — it will be up to Mariota to make plays with his arm. There’s a good chance he’ll have to excel at both to win. Help from his offensive line, Walker and his outside receivers, such as Rishard Matthews, Davis and Eric Decker, who all should receive one-on-one coverage, will be essential.
It may take a few Titans having the best game of their careers to pull off a win.
“Quarterback wouldn’t be bad,” Mularkey said. “That’d be a good position to play your best game ever.”