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Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel answers questions after Sunday's 38-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Nashville. / AP photo by Mark Zaleski

It has to end this way, doesn't it?

Even losing two straight games in December hasn't yet eliminated the Tennessee Titans from the NFL's playoff race. All the Many Hues of Blue Crew has to do is win at Houston next Sunday to reach the postseason for the second time in three seasons. But that's the honorable way in. If Pittsburgh loses at Baltimore and Denver beats Oakland — a very distinct possibility — the Titans are in regardless.

Imagine that.

Certainly, winning at Houston is unlikely. But is it any more unlikely than the Titans racing in front of the New Orleans Saints 14-0 on Sunday inside a watery and nippy Nissan Stadium? Or after twice falling behind the sensational Saints by 10 points, owning the ball with just more than four minutes to play and down by but three?

Sure, the Titans turned the ball over the very next play. And perhaps that was karma for letting New Orleans run a fake punt play that should have gained a first down but did not because the receiver dropped the ball.

Then again, the Saints' defense hit Kalif Raymond about as hard as you can hit a guy and not get a penalty for it. Understandably, Raymond fumbled. Saints rookie C.J. Gardner-Johnson ran the ball back 38 yards. A minute or two later, Drew Brees hit Michael Thomas for the game-clinching touchdown.

It was the kind of effort throughout that makes New Orleans a legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl — especially if it can wind up with home-field advantage, because the Saints are 7-1 in their past eight home playoff games inside the Superdome.

But the Titans deserve some credit, too. As has been their custom all season, they never quit in this one. Not even close. And if they do wind up missing the postseason for the 10th time in 11 seasons, it won't be for lack of effort.

It will, however, be for lack of judgment, though perhaps the front office should be forgiven for showing a bit of loyalty toward Marcus Mariota, the quarterback Tennessee drafted No. 2 overall in 2015.

Yes, if offseason acquisition Ryan Tannehill, the former longtime Miami Dolphins starting QB, had been made the starter by the Titans sooner, the team might not have lost four of its first six games, wasting a number of fine defensive efforts in the process.

But Tannehill hadn't exactly been compared to Dan Marino during his days with the Dolphins. And Mariota has always attempted to do everything asked of him, including putting on 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason.

For whatever reason — multiple offensive coordinators, a less than stellar receiving corps, his own pedestrian passing skills in an NFL that increasingly requires insanely accurate throws to succeed — it never really clicked.

At least for the past nine games, Tannehill has clicked. With the exception of their home loss to Houston a week before the loss to New Orleans, the Titans have averaged more than 30 points a game with the former Texas A&M quarterback as their starter.

Even in defeat against the Saints, Tennessee wound up with more total yards, 397-377.

Does this mean Tannehill deserves a long-term deal? If the money works, Titans general manager Jon Robinson should probably consider a short-term contract with huge incentives for offensive production.

He's currently on a one-year deal guarantee of $7 million with incentives that could hike that to $12 million. Given his production since becoming the starter in Week 7, he's probably worth at least $15 million a year. Given his age (31), perhaps an incentive-heavy four-year contract might work.

Whatever, it would seem that the Titans — who really haven't had an elite quarterback since the late Steve McNair — need to lock up Tannehill sooner rather than later.

That said, what they need to do this week is find a way to win in Houston. It's doable. The Texans held off the Buccaneers at Tampa Bay on Saturday, six days after they outlasted the Titans in Nashville. But with a playoff bid already locked up, it's also debatable how much the Texans will focus on the Titans.

And even then, there's still a chance the Titans are in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and first time under second-year coach Mike Vrabel.

"We got a playoff game next week," Titans cornerback Logan Ryan told the Associated Press on Sunday. "A win-and-we're-in situation. Regardless of what our record, regardless of what division we're in, that's a great situation to have if you're a competitor."

Having lost two straight, it certainly beats the alternative.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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