JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines the Tennessee Titans as they prepare to play the Jaguars at EverBank Field Saturday at 1 p.m.
The skinny on the Titans is they're good and getting better.
They also control their destiny for the postseason, and they are well within range of winning the AFC South.
The Titans, after finishing 3-13 last season and starting 5-6 this season, have won three consecutive games to enter the final two regular-season games tied for first place in the division with the Houston Texans at 8-6. If the Titans win their final two games, they win will the division.
The Titans started the season 1-3, but have beaten three .500-plus teams – Green Bay, Denver and Kansas City – since mid-November. They rallied from a 17-7 deficit to beat Kansas City, 19-17, in Kansas City this past Sunday.
"We've been kind of teetering around .500 all year after the slow start of 1-3," Titans Head Coach Mike Mularkey said. "The thing I talked about our team [is] their resiliency of coming back next week and not letting the previous week lead to a set back and that's the way we've played these games.
"We don't ever get down on ourselves. We believe in a lot of what we're doing and last week was a good example. But there is not one particular game… Every game is a new experience for us, another learning experience for us."
The Titans' "exotic-smashmouth" approach has produced one of the NFL's best offenses, a unit that ranks eighth in the NFL in total yards (373.5 a game) and fifth in yards per play (5.9).
The Titans have won two consecutive games against the Jaguars, winning this season's October 27 prime-time matchup 36-22 in a one-sided game. The Titans had 494 yards in that game, including 354 in a first half in which they outscored Jacksonville 27-0.
The Titans have emerged as perhaps the AFC South's best team largely because of an efficient offense led by quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray. The Titans control tempo with a dominant offensive line, and rank third in the NFL in rushing at 144.7 yards per game. Tennessee leads the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage at 72.7, having scored 32 touchdowns on 44 possessions inside opponents' 20-yard line.
The Titans' running game keys their success – and so is Mariota. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, he has emerged as one of the NFL's best young players at the position. He has passed for 3,327 yards and 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season, and he has rushed for 346 yards and a 6.0-yard average. He has the NFL's third-highest passer rating over the past 11 games. "He's very confident in what we're doing," Mularkey said. "He's really been better with the presence with the ball in the pocket and trying to do the right things with it whether he's throwing it away or protecting it. It's much better." Murray ranks second in the NFL in rushing with 1,224 yards and nine touchdowns and rookie Derrick Henry has rushed for 472 yards and four touchdowns.
The Titans have allowed opponents less than 20 points five times this season, but two of those games have come in the last two weeks – a 13-10 victory over defending Super Bowl-champion Denver and the victory over Kansas City. The Titans' defense dominated the Jaguars' offense in the first meeting, allowing just 48 yards rushing, and ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing defense at 91.7 yards per game. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo leads the Titans with 11 sacks and linebacker Derrick Morgan (9.0) needs one sack for his first double-digit sack season.
The Jaguars must stop the Titans' running attack – and offensively, they must figure a way to get Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey blocked. One of the NFL's premier defensive linemen, Casey is a disruptive force who lines up in various spots. "There's moving all over the place the whole time," Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "We have to track them and make sure we've got our line on him. It's going to be critical and it's going to be a test." Casey has three sacks, 24 pressures and three passes defensed this season. "He's a dynamic player," Hackett said. "He's a veteran with tons of savvy. He moves all over the place. He's a good football player. He's one of those guys we have to be aware of."
"We're in a good position, a position we've earned and I think these guys understand. We have a really good locker room; we have a lot of good leaders in it. I think they understand where we're at and the message is still consistently being told to them: avoid distractions and lock in for the Jaguars and the Jaguars alone."
"We didn't have the energy and the effort and stuff that we've had prior. We have definitely challenged them. We have some things, they're a very talented football team, and they run the ball extremely well. We've got to go out with a little fire on our backside to make sure that we play well. We look forward to the challenge and we've challenged them each and every day we've been in that room this week."
--Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash on motivation from season's first meeting with Tennessee