NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The drought is over. The Tennessee Titans finally beat the Indianapolis Colts 36-22 after 11 consecutive losses, and they did so on the back of a limited, pocket-passing Marcus Mariota and a heroic second-half performance by their much-maligned defense.
Franchise quarterbacks rise to the occasion, and Mariota did so Monday, helping wake up a dormant Titans defense with clutch third-down completions and what ended up being the game-winning, 53-yard touchdown pass to Taywan Taylor.
It was Mariota’s fifth career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, and he earned it by digging deep for a 15-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that put the Titans ahead 22-19 after they trailed for most of the game. Mariota went 8-of-8 for 76 yards on that drive, including key completions to Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker, who had his best game as a Titan, with seven catches for 88 receiving yards.
The Titans (3-3) are in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South, and they are eyeing a very manageable schedule down the stretch.
“It’s a huge win,” Mariota said. “It’s a division win. It’s an opportunity for us to share the lead in the division. I think when it comes down to it, the monkey is off our back, and we get to just go out there and play now. And we look forward to getting ready for Cleveland next week.”
Mariota finished 23-of-36 with a season-high 306 yards, a touchdown and a pick-six that was forgotten by the end of the game.
Mariota’s footwork and passing accuracy were the best they’ve been all season. He used play-action to perfection, going a crisp 10-of-11 and throwing for a career-best 186 yards off the fake.
“The guy’s a complete stud,” Taylor Lewan said. “The guy’s a franchise quarterback, and he deserves everything he gets. I’m just happy to be his left tackle.
“Just his work ethic, the kind of pro he is, the kind of guy he is, I can’t say enough about Marcus Mariota. He’s the bomb dot com.”
Still, Mariota clearly was not 100 percent. He didn’t even attempt to run, besides on an extremely important and successful fourth-quarter quarterback sneak. He threw only one pass outside of the pocket, a throwaway. But Mariota’s being forced to remain in the pocket could help his confidence in the long run.
“It’s part of the game. I think throughout the season there’s points in time when you’ve got to play a little hurt,” Mariota said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys up front, and the receivers are doing a great job of finding separation. We were just able to execute and make plays, and we came out on top.”
The Titans’ offensive line played great. Mariota had a clean pocket for most of the game, and his only sack was a self-sack for 1 yard to avoid contact.
“We live and die by each other,” said Lewan, who played well after missing much of last week’s game against the Dolphins because of a knee injury. “That’s what makes us such a special group.”
Derrick Henry capped it off with a 72-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. He ended with a career-high 131 rushing yards.
The Titans’ defensive performance might be lost because of Mariota’s great day, but it shouldn’t be. It was an entirely different bunch in the second half, and credit defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for making the appropriate halftime adjustments. Tennessee came out attacking effectively with tighter coverage in the back end and strong run defense.
Titans cornerback Logan Ryan deserved major props for his efforts against Colts star receiver T.Y. Hilton. Rookies Adoree’ Jackson and Jayon Brown, who had two key pass breakups, also played big roles in shutting the Colts down in the second half.
Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett went 9-of-20 for 93 yards in the second half, after going 12-of-17 for 119 yards in the first half.
It was all capped off by veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard tracking down a scrambling Brissett on the Colts’ final fourth-down comeback attack. Woodyard grabbed Brissett’s ankles at the last moment to prevent Brissett from reaching the first-down marker before he went out of bounds. It has been a great season for Woodyard, and he secured the win with that play.
“Huge, huge, huge team win,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said.