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Tennessee Titans cornerback Logan Ryan (26) is congratulated after sacking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the first half of Sunday's game in Nashville.
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Mark Wiedmer

Upon learning today's column would focus on the diametrically opposite Sunday performances of the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans, assistant sports editor Marty Kirkland made the following observation: "Those two games were a good lesson on why not to bet on the NFL."

Few truer words have ever been spoken.

Favored by five points and riding a three-game winning streak after a 1-4 start, the Falcons lost 28-16 at Cleveland.

Solid 6.5-point underdogs to the New England Patriots, the Titans wore out the lordly Pats inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium, winning 34-10.

"We took a step back today," said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose team's playoff chances took a giant leap backward, considering Atlanta must yet visit Carolina, Green Bay and New Orleans. "That's tough to see and tough to say."

It was surely odd to watch for any Falcons fan who also follows the Georgia Bulldogs, because former Dawgs great Nick Chubb set a Browns record for longest run from scrimmage on a 92-yard touchdown, caught a 13-yard pass for another score and finished with 176 rushing yards on 20 carries.

But as shocking as that result was considering the Browns had begun the day on a four-game losing skid, what took place in the Music City was downright unbelievable.

Or was it, given that Titans coach Mike Vrabel is a former Patriots linebacker who was so upset with legendary New England coach Bill Belichick for trading him to Kansas City late in his playing career that he admitted last week, "We didn't talk for a couple months, maybe a year."

After all, one of New England's two other losses this season came at the hands of another first-year NFL head coach with earlier ties to the Patriots. Former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, now the head man in Detroit, watched his Lions smack New England 26-10 in Week 3.

Given what the Titans did Sunday, it's fair to ask whether that's a coincidence, and especially with Detroit but 3-6 this season.

What may not be a coincidence is the noticeable improvement in the Titans' offense since their bye week at the end of October. Having lost three straight entering that open date and having averaged but 10.3 points in those three defeats, the team looked as if it was going to waste the top scoring defense in the NFL, with the Titans limiting opponents to 16.8 points per game.

But something apparently clicked between quarterback Marcus Mariota and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur during that break. After scoring 28 at Dallas in a win last Monday night, the Titans erupted for 34 against the Pats, with Mariota passing for two touchdowns and no interceptions, as well as catching a 21-yard pass on a double reverse.

More importantly, no Titan seemed to be so excited over this one that the team might struggle to be properly focused for next Sunday's big AFC South showdown at Indianapolis.

Said Vrabel afterward: "I think that every week in this league is a new challenge, and I think that they understand that now. We're coming off the field, and in the tunnel guys are like, 'Man, on to the next one, on to the Colts.' Now they understand as great as this was, as good as it feels, that it's still a long season and we haven't really accomplished anything."

Added Mariota: "I hope we don't hang our hats on it. If we just sit here and feel good about ourselves, the next week we're not going to play very well."

Until Sunday, the Falcons' offense had played well almost every time out, with quarterback Matt Ryan putting up the kind of numbers that made him the league's MVP two seasons ago.

And neither Ryan (two passing touchdowns, 330 passing yards and no interceptions) nor wideout Julio Jones (seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown) were less than stellar against the Browns. But nobody else did much, with the defense giving up 427 total yards.

With just seven games to go, it's hard to find a single example of the Falcons having played well on offense, defense and special teams in the same game this year.

"It is disappointing because we had been playing better than this the last couple of weeks," Ryan said afterward. "We're better than what we put out there today, but you're only as good as your last performance. Today was not good enough."

The Titans — who play four of their final five at home — are beginning to look like a team that just might be good enough to make a deep playoff run for the first time since losing the Super Bowl at the close of the 1999 season.

As for the Falcons, well, at least they should be able to get Super Bowl tickets, because the game will be played in their own Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Titans fans, of course, can somewhat painfully tell you their previous Super Bowl appearance was in the Big Peach inside the Georgia Dome.

If history repeats and the Titans make another run to the title game, it might be against the same franchise that toppled them that season — the Rams.

Just don't bet on it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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