Season once again hinges on Jacksonville

Friday, December 29, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 52

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota gets up slowly while Los Angeles Rams defensive players celebrate stopping the Titans on the final drive of last week’s game, a 27-23 win for the Rams. The Titans must win at home against Jacksonville this week to guarantee their first playoff berth in nine years.

-- Ap Photo/James Kenney

By now, Titans fans know winning Sunday’s game against Jacksonville would put the team in an NFL playoff game for the first time since Jan. 10, 2009.

A victory against the Jaguars would not only end a postseason drought that has stretched for nine years, but it also would validate the decision that the Titans’ hierarchy made early in 2016 when controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and brand new general manager Jon Robinson retained Mike Mularkey as head coach.

When the interim tag was removed followed by a seemingly half-hearted search for outside candidates, the decision was met with plenty of skepticism, given Mularkey’s 2-7 mark in mopping up Ken Whisenhunt’s mess.

But Mularkey and his staff removed much of the doubt last season when they tripled the 2015 win total to finish 9-7 and just miss the playoffs.

Even last year, there were questions about play calls and in-game strategies regarding Mularkey and his staff. But as the season wore on, quarterback Marcus Mariota matured into what looked to be a franchise quarterback, and a solid run game had the Titans on the doorstep of contention, calming the fears of many naysayers.

Even a Christmas Eve stumble at Jacksonville that essentially ended the Titans’ playoff hopes did little to dampen the positive expectations for 2017. Even for those who had doubted Mularkey’s hire, the overall improvement and culture change were hard to ignore.

Fast forward to this season, and things gradually but undeniably have changed. Mariota has been hampered by interceptions and can’t be counted upon to consistently boost the sagging run game with the read-option due to his injuries.

The offensive line and running game have regressed, and the offensive system of Mularkey and Terry Robiskie has been endlessly scrutinized. It was glossed over when the Titans were 8-4, but at 8-7 the criticism is as loud as ever.

While there are those who may never be sold on Mularkey as head coach, one thing is certain as he heads into Sunday’s game: A playoff-clinching win against the Jaguars is proof that necessary progress is still being made for a franchise that not too long ago was 5-27 record over a two-year period.

Despite their many flaws, exposed during their recent three-game freefall through the NFC West, reaching the playoffs is the next step the Titans must take to keep the rebuild going.

The flip side, of course, is that failing to win Sunday means ending the season with four consecutive losses and taking a major step backwards to finish 8-8. It also would raise more questions and criticisms of Mularkey and his staff – even to the point that drastic changes might not be out of the question for 2018.

Need more drama? It’s the Jaguars and Doug Marrone – interviewed by the Titans when Mularkey was hired – standing in front of the Titans’ postseason door for the second consecutive year.

So, it comes down to this: Win and in for Mularkey and the entire Titans’ organization, or lose and face more postseason coaching changes.

At the poker table, they call this “all in.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for