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AP file photo by James Kenney / Tennessee Titans fans were along for an exciting playoff ride last season after their team secured a wild card. While winning the AFC South is certainly a legitimate goal for the Nashville franchise this year, it's not an easy one.

NASHVILLE — We want the difference in winning and losing in the National Football League to be complicated because pro football is complicated, filled with options on top of options for every play, of which there may be hundreds in a given playbook.

But that difference in victory and defeat can also be insanely simple. Just listen to Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill explain how his team suffered a crushing 24-21 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon at Nissan Stadium.

"When you play good teams in this league," he said, "you have to play four quarters, not two."

Not exactly rocket science, huh? But a more accurate assessment could not have been spoken, for the visitors' 14-0 halftime lead was just a little too much for the Titans to overcome in a span of two quarters.

Or as Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel lamented, "Finding ways to go down 14-nothing would be one of those ways that gets you beat. It's just hard to overcome that in this league."

Sadly, this is who these Titans are, or at least who they've been for a decade or more. Now 8-6 this season with games they're more likely to lose than win remaining against the New Orleans Saints next Sunday and at Houston on Dec. 29, they're almost certain to finish 9-7 or 8-8, which they've done six times since 2006.

Call it the Titans Tease. In every one of those six seasons, they were on the cusp of a playoff berth with two weeks to play. Yet in only one of those years, 2017, did they make the postseason, and the franchise was apparently so unhappy with that result (despite the Titans winning at Kansas City in the opening round) that they fired Mike Mularkey, who was replaced by Vrabel.

Most of the rest of those six years were like last season, when they fell 33-17 at home to the Indianapolis Colts in the last game of the regular season, though Marcus Mariota, Tennessee's starting quarterback at the time, was unable to play that night due to injury.

Still, to watch Sunday's first half, one saw a cautious, somewhat unlucky team fall behind 14-0 at intermission due at least in part to Titans kicker Ryan Succop's 45-yard field-goal attempt being blocked and Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus returning 86 yards his interception of a Tannehill pass that slipped through the hands of Anthony Firkser when the Titans tight end was hit by safety Justin Reid on the goal line. Mercilus didn't take the pick all the way to the house — after all, he went to Illinois, not Auburn — but it led directly to the Texans' second touchdown.

"That kind of got us going," Houston coach Bill O'Brien said. "I think that was the play of the game, really."

Naturally, Tannehill had a different take on the theft by the aptly named Mercilus.

"I had exactly what we wanted," he said of the matchup. "We wanted to get Firk coming on the inside, and the guy knocked the ball loose right after Firk got his hands on it, and it just happened to go right in Mercilus' lap."

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Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel is trying to get his team to the playoffs this season after missing out last year. / AP photo by James Kenney

The Titans did fight back, as the Titans almost always have. They tied it at 14. They gave hope to so many of the 65,265 fans who had arrived in Titans Blue outfits to support the team's "Code Blue" promotion.

They made you think, however briefly, that they really had become the team that won six of its past seven before Sunday and averaged 31 points a game doing it since Tannehill had replaced Mariota at quarterback.

But then the Texans — who basically exist because late Titans owner Bud Adams moved his NFL franchise formerly known as the Oilers from Houston to Tennessee — made sure to have all of Music City feeling a different kind of blue.

From that 14-all tie, Houston scored the next 10 points. The Titans did pull within the final margin, but they couldn't secure an onside kick with two minutes to play and made nothing of one last-chance possession with less than 20 seconds remaining.

"That's the kind of team we are. We battled back," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "But the defense didn't hold them down."

If they can't battle back from this defeat, a lot of Titans fans will quite fairly point to Tannehill not replacing Mariota at quarterback until the team had stumbled to a 2-4 start as the reason for no postseason. It's an almost flawless argument, given how good the offense had been at putting points on the board with Tannehill behind center going into Sunday.

They might also wonder if former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standouts Isaiah Mack and Kareem Orr might have made a difference for the defense Sunday. Alas, Mack was made inactive and Orr was once again released.

Barring a miracle of sorts, the Titans will once again — for the 10th time in an 11-season stretch — be inactive come the playoffs. Time to once more recycle all of those "Wait 'Til Next Year!" signs that surely litter the basements and attics of Titans fans the region over.

"In this league, when it's late-season games like this, the margin of error is really, really thin," Titans linebacker Jayon Brown said. "So we know that, and Houston took advantage of that."

The question is when, if ever, will the Titans take advantage of their chances, however thick or thin, to reach the playoffs instead of almost always winding up as a figurative Code Blue with their season on the line?

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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