'Backyard' Marcus Mariota takeover is Titans' best chance to upset Chiefs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was a play Steve McNair, the Tennessee Titans’ last true franchise quarterback, would have made.

Marcus Mariota’s defining franchise quarterback moment may have been the 13-yard run on a broken third-and-5 play Sunday against Jacksonville to essentially clinch a playoff berth. His nasty stiff-arm that drove Jaguars safety Barry Church into the ground got all the love, but there was much more to take out of his performance than that highlight play.

"Heisman reminisce," cornerback Logan Ryan said. "The guy is a franchise QB. Put the ball in his hands and he'll do that. That's what it's about -- you can't always draw it up. It's not always X's and O's. Everybody thinks we need to run more of this, do more of that. Sometimes it's guys going out there and making plays."

Mariota's fourth quarter -- when he had 37 more huge rushing yards and gained a first down on all four of his carries -- likely would have impressed the late Titans legend, too. It was full of Mariota making plays late in a game in which his stats didn't tell the full story.

Perhaps unintentionally, Mariota may have provided the blueprint for the Titans to pull off a postseason upset in Kansas City this weekend. Tennessee's struggling offense hasn't found the magic formula and it probably won't by Saturday's wild-card game. They need Mariota to lead them by making plays his way.

"Sometimes you gotta play backyard football. Sometimes you gotta overcome coaching," tight end Delanie Walker said. "That's what makes some players great when they know how to do that."

Walker said there's a difference between preparation and execution. He puts the onus on his fellow offensive players to be playmakers rather than strictly following the call and scheme that have often put them in bad and predictable situations. That starts with Mariota, the Titans' leader.

"Overcoming coaching" is what makes Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson so special sometimes. The game-defining plays don't have to be schemed. It's still a kid's game played by grown men with great athleticism.

Mariota finished with 10 carries for 60 yards in Sunday's 15-10 victory, his most carries and rushing yards since Week 6 of the 2016 season. It was a combination of called runs and scrambles, but the latter was particularly effective. Mariota converted a first down on 37 percent of his rush attempts, the highest rate in his three NFL seasons.

"That's old Marcus, before the injury. That's him," defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said of the broken right leg Mariota suffered on Christmas Eve 2016. "This is the Marcus I been waiting to see -- him using them legs and making things happen. We need to see that more out of him going forward."

The Titans have often schemed in the regular season to protect Mariota, from injury and sometimes himself. Mariota has also looked reluctant to run at times. But the playoffs mean there may need to be more risk, so to speak, to get a greater reward.

“Every man needs to do whatever he can, whatever it takes, to make this thing go,” Mularkey said.

Mariota is still the Titans' best playmaker and weapon. That could mean more calls for read-option plays and no-huddle offense, as well as more audibles and scrambles from Mariota when the defense shows an unfavorable look.

"It was just me being me. This is the time in the season where you just gotta lay it all on the line," said Mariota, who is undergoing his worst statistical season as a pro passer mainly due to his career-high 15 interceptions and career-low 13 passing touchdowns. His ability has a runner and freelancer hasn't seen the same regression, though.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Chiefs as more than a touchdown favorite over the Titans, but Tennessee can win Saturday if backyard Mariota takes over.