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What the hell are the Tennessee Titans?

More than two months into the 2018 NFL season, it’s still hard to figure out if the Titans are an actual contender or not.

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Are the Tennessee Titans a team you can believe in?

On the one hand, they beat up on the New England Patriots in Week 10. On the other, the Titans team started September with a loss to the Dolphins and then October with a loss to the Bills.

Yes, they have wins over the Jaguars and Eagles — an AFC Championship team from last year and the defending Super Bowl champion. But those wins aren’t quite as impressive now that both teams are floundering.

No team has allowed fewer points than Tennessee, but only four teams have had more difficulty getting points on the scoreboard.

At 5-4 and just one game back in the AFC South, the Titans have a very real chance at making the playoffs. But you’d be forgiven if you don’t fully trust them. Let’s try to figure out who exactly the Titans really are.

The case for the Titans being a contender

Tennessee’s defense is legit. There’s no way around it.

The unit boasts both young talent (Adoree’ Jackson, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry) and reliable veterans (Wesley Woodyard, Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey), and is especially good at limiting offenses’ explosiveness:

Through nine games, the Titans have allowed only two rushes and 28 pass plays of 20 or more yards. Opponents aren’t finding big plays against Tennessee and need long, ball control drives to get in the end zone. So far, that hasn’t been happening much.

The bigger concern is an offense that averages only 18.7 points per game — 28th best in the NFL.

But that was partly due to the elbow injury Marcus Mariota suffered in Week 1. It caused nerve damage bad enough that he couldn’t grip a football. Blaine Gabbert started in his place for two games, although a concussion early in his second start forced Mariota back into action.

After the injury, Mariota‘s play was inconsistent, but that’s nothing new. He’s been every bit as hard to figure out as the Titans, as a whole.

Then as the injury healed, Mariota improved. Now he looks 100 percent and, since a Week 8 bye, the Titans offense has sprung to life. They scored 62 points in the last two weeks after 66 points in the five games prior.

Since the bye, Mariota has completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 468 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a 122.2 passer rating over the two-game span after not topping a rating of 100 in any of his first six games this year.

With that version of Mariota, the Titans are scoring points while the defense is shutting teams down. That scary combination ended up crushing the Patriots, 34-10. It also helped the Titans cruise to a 28-14 win over the Cowboys — the only home loss for Dallas this season.

As long as Mariota’s play holds level, the Titans can give any team a run for its money.

The case for the Titans being a pretender

Mariota has had spectacular stretches before. Halfway through his second season, he looked like he was already one of the elite passers in the NFL.

In an eight-game run in the middle of that 2016 season, Mariota threw 21 touchdowns with three interceptions and had a 117.7 passer rating. He added two rushing touchdowns during that span too.

Then Mariota completed 45.2 percent of his passes over the next three games, broke his fibula in Week 16, and finished the season on injured reserve.

His peaks remind you why he was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. His valleys make you wonder if the Titans will be on the lookout for another quarterback soon.

So it’s still worth wondering if his high-level play against the Cowboys and Patriots is a precursor of a postseason run — or if it’s just another spike for a player who will revert to the mean soon.

It doesn’t help that he’s behind a shaky offensive line. He gets sacked 29.1 percent of the time he drops back to pass — the highest rate in the NFL among starters — and was sacked a whopping 11 times by the Ravens a month ago. Then again, many of those were his fault.

Whoever’s to blame, that much punishment isn’t great for a quarterback who still hasn’t played a full 16-game season in his career and already missed time this year too.

There are few holes you can poke in the Titans defense too, even if they’re harder to find.

Malcolm Butler is looking like a free agent bust. Even if he had a decent game against the Patriots in Week 10, he’s been an absolute liability on the field this season. He’s given up seven touchdowns already, the most of any cornerback in the NFL. Not only that, but quarterbacks have a 142 passer rating when throwing his direction.

The defense also doesn’t force many turnovers, with just nine so far this year. Only seven defenses have forced fewer.

The Titans were feeling pretty good, if overlooked, earlier in the year. Then they asked for respect ... and promptly lost to the Bills.

It was a fall from grace that wasn’t too surprising at the time. But now the Titans are in great shape again after back-to-back impressive performances.

There are quite a few winnable games left on the Titans’ schedule too — including matchups against the Jets and Giants. So dreams of a deep playoff run aren’t unrealistic. But it’s still tough to bet on the Titans being a team you can count on to look the same from week to week.