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Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel watches Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts in Nashville.
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Mark Wiedmer

NASHVILLE — An hour or more before every NFL football game kicks off, a sheet is handed out in the press box that lists inactive players and lineup changes for that contest. Ninety minutes before the Tennessee Titans began their regular-season finale against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, the home team's list of inactives featured the one name all Titans fans feared would be included — Marcus Mariota.

No pro football team wants to go into any game without its starting QB, and this wasn't just any game.

If Tennessee could beat Indy, it could reach the playoffs for a second straight season. If Tennessee could beat Indy, it would not only own a 10-6 record, it would have won five straight to close the regular season, a remarkable achievement for a team that had lost back-to-back games by scores of 38-10 at Indy on Nov. 18 and 34-17 at Houston on Nov. 26.

Yet as Mike Keith, the longtime "Voice of the Titans," walked through the Nissan Stadium press box prior to kickoff, he made an interesting observation regarding Mariota's absence.

"With or without him," Keith noted, "We're going to have to run the ball and play great defense to win."

In other words, as important as Mariota often is, this all-or-nothing game could theoretically be won with backup Blaine Gabbert under center.

And the packed house seemed determined to help that along. Part-time Nashville royalty Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman even showed up to offer support, the country singer Urban excitedly driving a Titans sword into the ground to charge up the crowd.

If it didn't pay immediate dividends, the Nissan patrons seemed determined to do their part over time, even ignoring a second-half rain shower to help pull the home team within 24-17 entering the fourth quarter.

In a moment eerily reminiscent of an early-season rally past the Philadelphia Eagles, last season's Super Bowl champions, the Titans were driving for the tying touchdown five minutes into the fourth quarter when Gabbert was intercepted.

And that's where Keith's pregame comments proved prophetic, though not the way he had surely hoped. Because those two components — the defense and the rushing game (or lack thereof) — is what ended up putting the Titans in a hole on the way to a 33-17 loss that ended their season.

By the fourth quarter, the Colts had more than doubled the Titans in total yards, 395 to 178. They had also limited Tennessee to 83 rushing yards, all of it courtesy the powerful legs of running back Derrick Henry. It wasn't awful and the defense showed its ferocity more than once against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who entered this one with 10 wins in 10 career starts against the Music City bunch.

How little did the Colts respect that Tennessee defense early? Near the start of the second quarter, facing fourth-and-2 near midfield, Indy went for it, easily making it for a first down on its way to a second score and a 14-0 lead with 9:26 to go in the opening half.

Certainly the absence of Mariota wasn't the only reason for this ending. Defensive lineman Durrell Casey, so often a Pro Bowler, was out with a knee injury. Linebacker Brian Orakpo joined Mariota on the inactive list.

To beat a standout quarterback who has won 10 straight starts against you requires all hands on deck. Tennessee didn't have that.

It was, in many ways, not unlike most of the rest of the season. The Titans were never out of the playoff hunt until the bitter end, but they were also never inside it, their postseason spot never remotely secure.

And that's where moving forward as the Titans are currently constructed — with Mariota as their quarterback — gets iffy. He has yet to make it through a single NFL season upright, missing noticeable chunks of each of his four seasons in the league.

Maybe they win with Mariota against the Colts. Probably they don't.

Luck is just that dynamic, at least where the Titans are concerned.

There is also this, for all who wish to ponder it. Playing the Los Angeles Chargers across the pond in London on Oct. 21, first-year Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel went for the win instead of a tie at the close of regulation. The 2-point conversion failed. The Titans never saw overtime.

Had they won that game in OT, Sunday's game against the Colts might not have been an all-or-nothing proposition.

But it ended up that way, the Titans unable to put their best team on the field when it mattered most. Or maybe it's just a Tennessee state thing, because fellow Volunteer State football teams Vanderbilt, Tennessee and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also lost their final football games of a mostly unsatisfactory season in 2018.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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