Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota leaves the field on a cart after he was injured during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack
December 26, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A year ago, Marcus Mariota's sprained knee left Tennessee fans almost grateful to see the quarterback safely on the sideline for the end of an ugly season.

Now Mariota's second season is over, ended by a broken right leg, Also gone: the Titans' playoff hopes.

Disappointment and frustration are bubbling over for the players and fans alike, a mark of just how far this franchise came in one quick year. The Titans went from landing the NFL's No. 1 overall pick for the 2016 draft, which they traded, to being upset at missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season after a 38-17 loss in Jacksonville.

''We've got to win the games that we have to win,'' Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Monday. ''Is that part of the learning process? Yeah, that's part of it. But it's a tough lesson to learn. You have to wait a year to build off of it, but I think we will take something from that and build off it.''

Before the Titans head into the offseason, they have a big chance for something this franchise has managed once since 2008: a winning record if they beat Houston in their season finale Sunday.

''You play this game to have winning records and go to the playoffs,'' Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan said. ''Obviously we can't do one, so why not do the other?''

A win Sunday would take care of two issues for Tennessee. The Titans would finish 9-7 to match their record for 2011, and they also would notch a divisional win. The Titans currently are second in the AFC South despite going 1-4 against the teams that know them best.

Lewan said he didn't have an answer for why the Titans have struggled so inside the AFC South.

''That's something that needs to change next year, for sure, starting with this next week coming up,'' Lewan said.

The Titans' loss to Jacksonville meant the eighth straight split in that divisional rivalry, while the Colts have beaten Tennessee 11 straight. Houston has won eight of the last nine. Part of those struggles is that the Titans have had only one winning season since their last playoff berth.

This season, these Titans beat postseason-bound teams Kansas City, Green Bay, Miami and Detroit - three of those wins on the road. Mariota showed great improvement, posted a 95.6 passer rating while throwing for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker said the Titans might go into games against teams with higher profiles knowing they need to play harder.

''Then the guys in our division ... we go in there and we play like them and they end up beating us,'' Walker said. ''Who knows?''

Mularkey acknowledged the Titans might need to learn how to deal both with success and the feeling that they can do more, perhaps not being as focused as needed. He also noted they were not as ready to play the Jaguars as they needed to be.

Veteran Matt Cassel will start Sunday against Houston, and the Titans will promote Alex Tanney to the roster. Mariota, who will need five months to recover, will have surgery Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina , with Dr. Bob Anderson putting a plate over the quarterback's broken right fibula.

Mularkey promised the Titans have plenty to play for Sunday.

''To lose that game like we lost it and be sitting in this position, really it's out of respect ...,'' Mularkey said. ''If you're a competitor, you're going to come back.''

NOTES: Mularkey said DL Karl Klug also will have his left Achilles tendon repaired Wednesday in Charlotte. How much does Mularkey trust Anderson? The Titans coach said the doctor has operated on both of his own feet.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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