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NFL forecast: Mariota, Titans ready for prime time

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

September 10, 2017 08:22 AM
After a 9-7 season, quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans appear ready to mature into a playoff team.
© USA Today Sports Images

A year ago on the season’s first Sunday, Jack Del Rio rolled the dice and proved to be a Vegas kind of guy. The risk-taking coach set the tone for the Oakland Raiders, who quickly morphed into one of the NFL’s most popular teams.

In the final minute of a high-scoring thriller in New Orleans, Del Rio called for a 2-point conversion, and Derek Carr delivered a perfect pass. The Raiders were on their way to 12-4 and a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

It’s time for Marcus Mariota to mirror Carr and take a similar step up. For the Tennessee Titans, it starts with proving they can beat the Raiders.

The pieces appear to be in place in Nashville. Entering his third year, Mariota is maturing as a passer in much the same way Carr did. The Titans, No. 3 in rushing offense at 136.7 yards per game last season, are built to play power football with a top-notch line and tough running backs. The defense might not be a rock, but it looks solid on paper.

Carr, who has become a legit elite quarterback, could take scissors to the Tennessee defense. He passed for 28 touchdowns with six interceptions and posted the league’s eighth-best passer rating (96.7) in 2016. He has plenty of pass-catching weapons and Marshawn Lynch adds a punishing element to the running attack. Oakland ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense (373.3 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (26.0).

But Oakland has problems on the other side of the ball, where it ranked 26th in total defense and still shows too many weaknesses at the linebacker spots and in the secondary. Mariota and the Titans’ running attack should be able to take advantage.

Carr escaped Nashville with a 17-10 win last September. For most of last season, everything went right for the Raiders, who won five games by three points or fewer. In the NFL, a team that played lucky one year tends to get the worst of it the next year.

Are the Titans, 9-7 last season, finally ready for prime time? This looks like a good time to support Tennessee as a 2½-point favorite.

The Week 1 schedule started with a bang on Thursday, when Alex Smith outplayed Tom Brady and the Kansas City Chiefs stifled the nonsensical speculation about New England going 16-0. The Patriots will bounce back, but Green Bay-Pittsburgh is my Super Bowl pick.

After also considering the Jets, Bears, Cardinals, Packers, Giants and Saints, I’m rolling with the Titans and four more plays for Week 1 (home team in CAPS):

* TEXANS (-5) over Jaguars: Emotions will run high in Houston after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. The J.J. Watt-led defense gets served the sacrificial lamb known as Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles, who is 0-6 against the Texans and was sacked 24 times in those six games. Houston’s defense is too tough for Bortles, and although it’s not easy to lay points with Tom Savage, the home favorite should cover in a low-scoring game.

* Eagles (-1) over REDSKINS: Washington will be the worst team in the NFC East, so bet under its win total of 7½. Kirk Cousins, who has one foot out the door and his eyes set on being the starter in San Francisco next season, lost wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Philadelphia added receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith for second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles should stop the Redskins’ five-game win streak in this series.

* 49ERS (plus-5) over Panthers: Cam Newton made only a cameo appearance in the preseason while recovering from a shoulder injury. Carolina, 15-1 two years ago before slipping to 6-10 last year, should be explosive offensively and win 10 games. But that might not be apparent right away. The 49ers improved their defense, and Brian Hoyer is a capable quarterback with a good running attack for support. San Francisco has won six straight regular-season openers.

* Chargers (plus-3) over BRONCOS: Philip Rivers gives the Chargers the QB edge, and their Joey Bosa-led defense is on the rise. Bosa will put heat on Trevor Siemian, who won the Broncos’ uninspiring quarterback competition. Denver’s defense has declined and is not what it was the past two years. The line in front of Rivers is much better now and the weapons are there — running back Melvin Gordon, wideout Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry, to name a few.

Last season: 45-36-4 (Las Vegas Review-Journal column)

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