The Titans head to the desert looking to maintain possession of first place in the AFC South
Tennessee enters Sunday’s matchup with Arizona having won six of its last seven games. And while a win is a win in the NFL, they all haven’t been very aesthetically pleasing for Titans fans. Starting with back-to-back three-point wins over the lowly Browns and Ravens, followed by four-point victories against the hapless Bengals and Colts, and finally an 11-point win against an injury-ravaged Texans team last week in a game that was much, much closer than the final score would indicate.
This week, it’s much more of the same as the Titans face another severely hobbled team with a losing record in the Cardinals on their home turf.
Tennessee at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 10 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. What’s up with Marcus Mariota?
Mariota’s stat line from last week’s victory over the Texans (15-for-23, 150 yards, TD) may look like the passing numbers of a military academy quarterback, but compared to recent weeks, the Titans will take it — especially because he didn’t throw an interception.
In the four games leading up to last Sunday, Mariota had thrown eight interceptions and just five touchdowns, giving him more picks (12) than touchdown passes (10) in 11 games this season. Not exactly the breakout campaign many were expecting from the third-year signal-caller.
So what is it about Mariota that isn’t clicking? The talent and mental savviness is most assuredly there, but not as evident this season. For starters, Mariota missed the entire offseason rehabbing from a broken bone in his leg, missing valuable time with newly acquired targets like Eric Decker, and rookies Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor — all three of which have been underwhelming in their own right.
But more than missed time and an underwhelming receiving corps, Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” running scheme has stalled from last year. Yes, the Titans are still a top-10 team in terms of rushing yards, but they’ve only eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark five times this season. Mix in more inconsistent line play from arguably the best group in the league a season ago, and it’s been tough sledding for Mariota’s development in year three.
Although circumstances around Mariota haven’t been perfect this season, he still has to find ways to improve his game — stop throwing when his feet are properly set, find more consistent arms angles, and be more patient in the pocket. At this point, the Titans are in good shape for securing a playoff spot, but it will be a quick trip if Mariota and the offense don’t get it figured out soon.
2. “It’s not your fault, Bruce”
No, this isn’t Good Will Hunting, but Bruce Arians (above, right) probably needs to hug it out and have a good, cathartic sob at some point. The Cardinals were supposed to be competitors in the NFC West this season, but the injury bug has turned into a full-on Black Plague in the desert. Mr. Everything running back David Johnson was lost for the season back in Week 1 with a broken wrist, quarterback Carson Palmer followed Johnson to the IR in Week 7 with a broken arm, and so too went starting offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Mike Iupati.
So how do the Cards find ways to score points against the Titans with Blaine Gabbert (yeah, still in the league) at quarterback? First, Gabbert can’t turn the ball over. The Cards were done in last week by two first-half interceptions that led to 14 first-half points for the Rams. With ball-hawking safety Kevin Byard lurking in the secondary, Gabbert needs to tread carefully.
Second, with Adrian Peterson listed as questionable, getting running back Kerrwyn Williams going on the ground is vital — easier said than done against a Titans defense that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rushing since Oct. 8. However, Williams found success against the Rams’ supremely talented front seven last week, rushing for 97 yards on 16 carries. But he is playing with two cracked ribs and the Arizona’s backfield depth has already been tested to the limit.
Finally, with the timeless Larry Fitzgerald (right) surely being the focal point of the Titans’ defensive focus, Gabbert will need someone else — anyone, really, anyone at all — to step up. Fitzgerald’s 82 catches this season puts him second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, but gives him 55(!) more receptions than his next closest teammate, tight end Jermaine Gresham (27). (Andre Ellington has 33, but he was released on Nov. 20 and is now with Houston.)
So, if anyone with a pair of semi-functional hands is looking for a job, your services are needed in Glendale.
3. Are the Titans any good?
It’s hard to argue against an 8-4 record, but I’m going to.
The Titans may be atop the AFC South but that still doesn’t prove they are what their record says they are — I don’t care what Bill Parcells says. So far, the Titans have only beaten two teams with a winning record, the Jaguars and Seahawks (both 8-4), in back-to-back games in Weeks 2 and 3. The Jaguars have one win against a team with a winning record this season, and everyone knows the Seahawks are notoriously slow starters — so take those wins with a dash of Lawry’s.
The AFC South has been a soft group for years and it starts with the division’s quarterback play, especially in 2017. Some dude named Jacoby, who wasn’t even on the Colts’ roster in the preseason, is starting in place of an injured Andrew Luck, and only after Scott Tolzien was benched in Week 2. Blake Bortles is miraculously still the starting quarterback in Jacksonville and Tom Savage is starting (again) in Houston because Deshaun Watson had a freak ACL tear. Not exactly a Murderer’s Row of field generals competing for a division title.
But the AFC South isn’t an anomaly of bad QB play, it’s a league-wide pandemic. Here’s a list of signal-callers the Titans have faced outside of their division thus far: Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer. Again, not exactly an All-Pro list.
So how have the Titans faced against the leagues good quarterbacks? Well, not great.
Against David Carr in Week 1? A 26-20 loss at home. Deshaun Watson in Week 4? A 57-14 beatdown in Houston. Ben Roethlisberger in Week 11? A 40-17 embarrassment in prime time.
So what happens if and when the Titans make the playoffs and have to face off against Big Ben again — or heaven help them — Tom Brady? It likely won’t be pretty. But lucky for the Titans, they won’t be exposed until they’re already in the playoffs, because the rest of their schedule is so favorable. Outside of a matchup with Jared Goff and the upstart Rams at home in Week 16, Tennessee doesn’t play another threatening QB the rest of the way. While the regular season finale against Jacksonville will likely be important, are you really going to be intimidated by Bortles in a pressure situation?
Tennessee’s record looks good on paper, sure. But when it comes down to it, the Titans are simply a by-product of a lackluster NFL season.
Marcus Mariota will eventually put all the pieces together, and no better time than now, facing the Cardinals’ banged-up and middling defense that lacks any healthy playmakers outside of Chandler Jones and Tyrann Mathieu. Look for a healthy dose of running back Derrick Henry who has taken over as the reins from DeMarco Murray as the Titans' top running back.
Prediction: Titans 20, Cardinals 16
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.