The return of Marcus Mariotta, along with the firing of Ken Whisenhunt, has undoubtedly given the Tennessee Titans a spark of momentum. The question is, can the Titans transcend last week’s success into an even bigger upset in Week 10? Tennessee’s victory on the road last week over New Orleans spoke volumes as to how this team feels about interim head coach Mike Mularkey. Perhaps, it says even more about their feelings towards former head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Regardless, the momentum of a seemingly re-invigorated Titans team will be put to the ultimate test as they play host to the undefeated Carolina Panthers in Week 10.
The Carolina Panthers, who stand alone as the only undefeated team left in the NFC, are coming off of a big win of their own in Week 9 against Green Bay. Ron Rivera’s Panthers will attempt to extend their perfect season by avoiding a major upset against an inspired Tennessee team on the road. A Panthers victory would also extend their consecutive regular season game win streak to 13 games. A streak that dates back to last season and stands as the longest active streak in the NFL.
This will be the fifth meeting all-time between the Titans and Panthers. Tennessee has commanded the brief series by compiling a record of 3-1 against Carolina. The two teams last played in 2011 with Tennessee coming away with a dominant 30-3 victory. Carolina’s one and only win against Tennessee came in the first ever meeting between the two teams in 1996.
Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Titans Re-Vamped Offensive Line vs. Carolina's Strong Pass Rush
One of the first orders of business on Mike Mularkey’s list after taking over head coaching duties for the Titans was to figure out a way to sure up an anemic offensive line. Heading into Week 9, Tennessee’s offensive line had allowed an atrocious 28 sacks in just seven games.
Mularkey’s experiment would include benching rookie RT Jeremiah Poutasi, sliding RG Byron Bell over to RT, and inserting recent signee Joe Looney into the RG spot previously manned by Bell. Mularkey’s plan would prove effective. Tennessee’s new look offensive line did not allow a single sack last week against a Saints pass rush that had been averaging two and a half sacks per game.
The Titans' upgraded offensive line showed improvement and promise last week. However, they will be put to a true test on Sunday. A potent Carolina pass rush, led by the emergence DT Kawann Short (6 sacks), has already accumulated 25 sacks in just eight games this season. In spite of the upgrades, the Tennessee front will have their hands full trying to keep Marcus Mariota clean on Sunday.
2. The Cam Newton Experience
The Carolina Panthers' simplistic strategy of running the football and playing great defense has been the model for their success all season. At the risk of stating the obvious, the biggest reason that model has had so much success lies primarily with Cam Newton. Newton’s numbers may not jump off the paper at you this year, but what makes him truly special is his ability to keep opposing defenses off balance. The simple fact that opposing defenses have to constantly second guess themselves against the versatile Newton puts them at a distinct disadvantage against the entire Carolina offense.
While the Tennessee Titans are no slouch on the defensive side of the football, they will have a full plate trying to account for Cam Newton on each and every snap. Carolina will maintain its typical slow and steady efficiency on offense, emphasizing its ground game, but this offense is most dangerous when plays break down in the passing game, allowing Newton to improvise his way to success. Newton’s ability to make something out of nothing is unmatched by any other quarterback in the NFL. Be it by ground or air, look for the unpredictable Newton to make another strong case for his MVP candidacy in Week 10.
3. Marcus Mariota Shines Against the NFC South (until now)
While the Titans have had little to cheer about overall so far this season, they do seem to have some strange mojo for success against NFC South opposition. Tennessee is now 2-1 against the NFC South. The only loss coming against the Falcons by just three points. A game that Tennessee could have easily won, also a game played without Marcus Mariota at quarterback.
Mariota is a perfect 2-0 against NFC South opponents, playing by far his best football against teams from that division. In contests against New Orleans and Tampa Bay, Mariota combined to complete 75 percent of his passes for 580 yards, 8 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Granted, his success did not come against the best defenses the NFC South has to offer, but it is notable nonetheless.
In Week 10, Tennessee will face the NFC South’s best defense. Carolina’s defense allows the fewest passing yards per play in the NFL (5.9 ypp), it is tied for the most interceptions in the NFL (13), and boasts an elite pass rush that averages just over four sacks per game. Mariota’s track record of dominance against NFC South foes so far this season suggests that he is in for another big performance in Week 10, but common sense and a nasty Carolina defense suggests otherwise.
Tennessee will carry some momentum into Sunday’s matchup, and the Titans have played well against all of the other teams in the NFC South. Unfortunately, the Carolina Panthers are not like all of the other teams in the NFC South. The Panthers actually play defense, and they have All-Pro caliber playmakers at every level on that defense. Offensively, the Panthers aren’t flashy, but they will move the chains, eat up clock, and Cam Newton will force the Titans' defense into mistakes that lead to touchdowns.
The bottom line is this, the Titans lack an effective rushing attack, and a solid passing game will be difficult to come by against a stout Carolina pass rush and secondary. Regardless of how motivated and re-energized the Tennessee Titans may be under new leadership, it cannot make up for the lack of fire power necessary to beat the red-hot Panthers.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Titans 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.