NASHVILLE — Standing in front of his locker at the Tennessee Titans' headquarters Tuesday afternoon, outside linebacker Derrick Morgan said he understood why he and his teammates are nearly two-touchdown underdogs to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots this Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass.
"We haven't been a very successful team the last 10 years," he said.
But that doesn't mean he doesn't believe the Titans can't get their second playoff win since 2003 after reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
"We're a lot hungrier team this year than last year," Morgan said, last Saturday's stunning comeback from 21-3 down at Kansas City on their way to a 22-21 win all the proof he needed to back up that claim. "We've got a big chip on our shoulder. Nobody respects us."
As the beer commercial claims, respect is earned, not given. And for eight long autumns, the Titans did little to be respected beyond their own locker room. But then general manager Jon Robinson arrived from Tampa Bay after spending time with the Patriots. And Mike Mularkey took over as permanent head coach after serving as an interim late in the 2015 season. And the ageless defensive genius Dick LeBeau, now 80, joined the staff as defensive coordinator.
Said the former Georgia Tech star Morgan of Lebeau's coaching acumen: "He's probably been in 50 playoff games, so we trust him."
But third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota and Mularkey are whom the Titans trust the most after last Saturday's miracle comeback against the Chiefs, which featured Mariota famously catching a touchdown from a pass he also threw — an oddity that was the first of its kind in NFL playoff history.
To revisit that moment, the Titans faced a third-and-goal at the Chiefs' 6-yard-line when Mariota's throw to the end zone was batted into the air by KC defensive back Darrelle Revis. Mariota ran under the ball and caught it for a touchdown.
Neither the Titans nor the Chiefs were the same from that point forward.facebook
Yet when Mariota was asked Tuesday which he'd heard more about, the unlikely TD catch or a key block he threw in the final minutes that helped running back Derrick Henry break loose for a 22-yard run, Mariota instantly replied with a quick smile, "Probably the block, though the offensive line said I had to sustain it better."
Considering that 35 Titans were in the first NFL playoff action of their careers, it would be hard to deliver a better debut effort than coming from 18 down at halftime to win on the road.
"They have each other's backs," Mularkey said. "We spent a lot of time together in the offseason. It's about building trust among each other."
This past Saturday, it was also about having Mularkey's back. Long before the Titans took the field in KC, rumors ran rampant that a Titans loss might cost him his job, despite the team ending its playoff drought.
Understandably frustrated with having to address his job security after a playoff win, Mularkey said of the rumors: "I don't think it's fair to my family. So when it has an effect on my family, it has an effect on me. So, yeah, I'd say it had a big effect on me."
Within 24 hours, Amy Adams Strunk released a statement that Mularkey's job was secure, and this mini-drama may indeed be over almost before it began, but as Morgan said, "We all know what Mike's meant to this team, how much he's changed the culture here. We're all happy to see ownership backing him. We certainly didn't want to see him go."
Mularkey also has a message for all those who think the Titans will be gone from the playoffs by late Saturday night.
"If you're a competitor, you take those things personally," he said of the overwhelming belief that Tennessee has no chance at New England. "This team does that quite often."
He then added, "They're the champs. They're one of the teams you have to beat if you want to become the champs."
Most believe the Patriots are the team to beat, as witness their current 2-1 odds of repeating.
But Mariota isn't yet ready to pack it in for the winter.
"What it comes down to," he said, "is that it's all about us."
At least for one more weekend.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.