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Titans building early confidence with pair of AFC South wins

September 24, 2018
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Tennessee Titans' Brett Kern, left, applauds teammate kicker Ryan Succop, center, after Succop made a go-ahead field goal against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have a rookie head coach. They started the season with the longest game in the NFL since the league’s merger with the AFL in 1970.

Coaches have mixed and matched players to survive a variety of injuries, including to starting quarterback Marcus Mariota.

And yet three weeks into the season, the Titans sit atop the AFC South as the NFL’s first team off to a 2-0 start in a division.

Call it gritty, gutsy or just resourceful, the Titans are finding ways to pull out some big, early victories.

“You build some confidence when you play tight, close games, tough games, division games that are going to be close,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday.

“There’s a lot of familiarity amongst opponents. Winning can cure a lot of things, and give you a lot of confidence going into the next week. But, there’s a lot of stuff that we can get better at, which is always the case.”

At the top of the list is healing up Mariota.

The fourth-year quarterback didn’t start because of his injured right elbow that still has him dealing with weakness in his throwing arm and numbness in his ring finger and pinkie.

Mariota led Tennessee to a 9-6 victory over the defending AFC South champion Jaguars using his legs for 51 yards and that arm for 100 more with no completion longer than 22 yards.

“Make no mistake about it, Marcus came in and won the football game,” Vrabel said.

“We wouldn’t have won the game without Marcus. That was really cool to see, it was cool to see him come in and compete for his team, to win the game. Not only throwing the football where he had to, but making some plays with his legs. It was a great win. We can thank Marcus for that one.”

Vrabel gave the Titans the day off Monday.

After the game, Mariota credited the coaches, including offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, with being creative. The Titans lost three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker in the opener, Mariota hasn’t started since the opener in Miami.

Tennessee beat Houston without its top three offensive tackles because of injuries or illnesses.

“Whether it’s dealing with injuries, whether it’s dealing with some unusual circumstances, you’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit,” Mariota said.

“You know, it’s still a young season, but at the same time, as a group we’ve got to continue to build off that confidence and see where this takes us.”

The coaches might need to get a bit more creative.

Backup Blaine Gabbert, who started a 20-17 win over Houston, is in the concussion protocol. Vrabel said he’s waiting to hear from doctors when Gabbert might return, which might force the Titans to add a third quarterback to the roster. Currently, rookie Logan Woodside, a seventh-round pick by Cincinnati, is on the Titans’ practice squad.

Vrabel said they will give Mariota everything he physically can handle.

Until Mariota and the rest of the offense gets closer to full strength, the Titans can sure lean on their defense.

Tennessee also has shut out its first three opponents through the first quarter of each game. Only the Rams, Jaguars and Washington have allowed fewer points.

The Titans never let Jacksonville get closer than the Titans 20 with the Jaguars getting into Tennessee territory only three times in the entire game.

Next is a visit from the defending Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles (2-1). Then three of the next four are on the road, including Tennessee’s first game in London, for a franchise that hasn’t won the AFC South since 2008.

“We’re three games in,” Vrabel said. “We’re a long way away.”

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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