NASHVILLE –- Mike Mularkey for nearly three seasons has been crafting the Tennessee Titans in his image. It’s a rough-and-tumble football identity that he absorbed as a Pittsburgh Steelers tight end from 1989 through 1991.
He went 2-7 as Titans interim head coach in 2015 and followed that with 9-7 as head coach last season. His Titans are 9-7 again this year. But there is a fresh gruffness about them. There is more scrap.
The four bold letters plastered over their Nissan Stadium locker room door, the last thing each player sees before exiting for the field, aptly describes it. It reads "GATA."
Translation: "Get After That Ass."
Why would Mularkey sanction that?
Well, when it’s 23 degrees and feels like a million-below, when you have lost three straight games, when you are in a win-and-in or lose-and-go-home regular season finale/bid for the playoffs and when the brute Jacksonville Jaguars are in your grill, there is no room for niceties. Both are AFC South teams. Jacksonville arrived here on Sunday as division champs with its playoff spot secured.
Now for the Titans to get after theirs.
"We were going to lay it on the line," Titans cornerback Tye Smith said.
"There was a lot of pressure — but we turned that into focus," Titans tight end Delanie Walker said.
They did it in a bold, smashing, "GATA" battle.
Tennessee won it, 15-10.
It was instant relief for this season and for the franchise. It’s on to Kansas City on Saturday for this wild card playoff team. It’s the Titans in the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
It was rival punched. Hex squashed.
"It’s a different locker room, it’s a different group and I’m proud to be a part of it," Mularkey said.
He is most proud of the fight in it.
Little came easy for the Titans this season and after losses to Arizona (12-7), San Francisco (25-23), and the Rams (27-23) turned an 8-4 team into an 8-7 team, the Titans were stressed. A playoff lock looked like a playoff whiff.
The physical Jaguars stood in the way.
The Titans answered with stiffer spines.
"Credit to them," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said. "We gave up something. We had some turnovers early on. Gave up some points. We’re going to go back and plan and take a good look at things."
Buffalo plays at Jacksonville in Sunday afternoon playoff action.
Jacksonville has some traits to toughen and tighten.
They lost two fumbles. Their offense managed only three points, with the team’s lone touchdown a defensive fumble return. The Jaguars were scoreless in the second half. Pivotal running back Leonard Fournette rushed for only 69 yards. Quarterback Blake Bortles threw two interceptions and finished with a 33.7 passer rating.
Tennessee forced the game its way. It caused those Jaguars problems. It forced the Jaguars first two-game losing streak of their season, coupled with their loss last week at San Francisco.
"We’re going to handle it fine," Fournette said. "This game will build you or break you. I believe every guy on this team is a stand-up guy. It’s not going to break us. We may bend at moments, but we aren’t going to break. I’m on to next week and getting ready for this playoff run."
Marrone hopes for the same. He said he is confident that returning home after these consecutive road losses will help heal his team.
A little more toughness mixed with execution will help, too.
Because two signature plays of this clash illustrated Tennessee’s dominant will. One was a 66-yard screen pass from Marcus Mariota to Derrick Henry early in the second quarter for the game’s first score. The other was a late third-and-5, stiff-arming, 15-yard run for a first down by Marriota that helped Tennessee drain the clock and protect their lead.
"I understood the situation," Mariota said. "It was just instincts. I wanted to make a play for these guys. It’s a privilege to play with these guys."
It was an unabashed "GATA" move.
Here go the Titans into the playoffs, flawed in their consistency, rugged in their approach. Tough-minded. A blow-for-blow team.
It serves them well. It is Mularkey’s way.
They will play in another severely cold-weather game in Kansas City. But it’s the playoffs. That has its own warmth, its own reward.
Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard reminds everyone of that.
He was a free agent linebacker signed by Denver in 2008. He joined the Titans in 2014.
"I made the playoffs three times in Denver, but this is the first time here," Woodyard said. "It came down to one game either puts you in or out. When you’re faced with a moment like that, it’s something you have to take. It’s likely not going to come to you by accident. You have to get after it. That’s exactly what we did."