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Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

It may have been the first time such words have ever been uttered about the Tennessee Titans offense, at least since the franchise moved from Houston to Memphis to Nashville and changed its name from Oilers to Titans.

"Every time we touched it, we felt like we were going to score," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said following the the Titans' 42-21 victory at Oakland on Sunday. "It was just a belief of everyone in the huddle — the run game was going, guys were making plays outside. We had belief in each other."

Hard as this is to believe following the team's 2-4 start and the benching of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the supposed face of the franchise, the Titans just might be the hottest team in the AFC heading into Sunday's showdown at Nissan Stadium against visiting Houston.

Though both AFC South teams enter the game with 8-5 records, it's the Titans who have won four straight and six of seven since Mariota was benched in favor of Tannehill.

Moreover, a Titans team long built on defense and ball-control football is suddenly averaging 31.4 points a contest with Tannehill at the controls, which is the second best scoring average in the NFL over the seven weeks he's started.

"I think we are always talking about personnel and the roster, and I think what Ryan has done has been fantastic," coach Mike Vrabel said Monday when asked where the team stood on possibly inking Tannehill to a long-term deal following the season. "We're going to focus on this week, and we'll focus on decisions on the roster in the offseason. But Ryan is going to be our quarterback this week."

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Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

This is why the letters N-F-L often are referred to by players and coaches as Not For Long, rather than their proper term National Football League. When the Titans used the second overall draft pick in 2015 to select Mariota, he had just won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon, was viewed as the perfect quarterback to run the spread-type offenses taking hold throughout the league and was considered a person of low maintenance and high character.

Now 26, Mariota remains one of the NFL's good guys, as anyone who witnessed his appearance at this newspaper's Best of Preps banquet a couple of years ago will surely attest.

But whether it be his injuries — he never played in all 16 regular-season games during any of his first four seasons — injuries to others or coaching changes, Mariota also rarely seemed completely comfortable and confident.

So after he threw two interceptions midway through a 16-0 loss at Denver on Oct. 13, a defeat to drop the Titans to 2-4, Vrabel benched him in favor of the 31-year-old Tannehill, who was acquired from Miami this past offseason for a couple of draft picks.

The offensive results since then have been staggering. Averaging 16.3 points per game with Mariota at the helm — and fewer than eight in the four defeats — the Titans have averaged 31.4 points in Tannehill's seven starts and 33.3 in their six wins, including 42-point outings in two of their last three games.

Beyond that, Tannehill's adjusted yards per attempt of 10.19 is the NFL's best. His average Intended Air Yards is 9.2 while Mariota's was 7.4.

There's also this, according to CBSSports.com: Tannehill has joined Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to complete 75 percent of their passes and record a passer rating of 130 or higher for three straight games. He's also the only QB in NFL history other than Seattle's Russell Wilson to have a run of four straight games with at least two passing touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 125 or higher. With numbers like those leading to all those victories, Tannehill just might be the best thing to hit Nashville since country music.

However, most impressive is what he's done for running back Derrick Henry. With Mariota at quarterback Henry was averaging 69.3 rushing yards per game. With Tannehill under center that number has almost doubled to 118.1 yards per game.

All of which also means that first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith probably deserves an apology from everyone (blush, blush!) who thought he was as much the problem as Mariota.

None of this means the Titans are a cinch to make the playoffs for the second time in three years. Though they've won six of their last seven while Houston has gone 4-3, they may also have the toughest final three games in the league, since the Titans must host New Orleans on Dec. 22 before wrapping up the regular season at Houston on Dec. 29.

Good as they've been to date, the Titans probably will have to win two of their final three to reach the postseason, especially with the Texans' other opponent being very beatable Tampa Bay. Even then, nothing is guaranteed unless they ultimately win the AFC South.

And with kicker Ryan Succop having hit only one of five field-goal tries since returning from an injury, the Titans would be wise to keep scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, since Succop has connected on 21 of his 22 extra points.

"We just have to keep it rolling," said offensive tackle Jack Conklin. "The offense is firing on all cylinders right now."

If he can still say that three weeks from now, the Titans should wave goodbye to Mariota and make Tannehill the new face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

 

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