The play was a box score anomaly: “Marcus Mariota pass to the left to Marcus Mariota for 6 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.”
It’s generally accepted that, in the famous words of Gisele, a quarterback can’t throw and catch the ball at the same time. Except, with the Titans’ backs up against the wall in a noisy Arrowhead Stadium, Marcus Mariota did just that.
His team was trailing by 18 points midway through the third quarter, and faced a third-and-goal from the six-yard line. Mariota was forced on the run, scrambling one way and then the other, looking for any open receiver. When he threw, Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis leaped up to bat down the pass, seemingly holding the Titans to a field goal … but then, Mariota emerged, running underneath the ball to catch the deflection, almost as if it had been planned that way all along.
“Right place, right time,” he shrugged in a post-game interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters.
That play was the turning point for the No. 5-seed Titans in their 22–21 upset win of the No. 4-seed Chiefs, who have still not won a home playoff game since 1993, and the outcome of the game may have domino effects for both teams. This may be the last time we see Smith in a Kansas City jersey. Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey—who, according to reports by the NFL Network, was at risk of being on the coaching hot seat if the Titans lost—may have secured more time in Tennessee.
If that’s the case, both he and the entire Titans roster have Mariota to thank. Mariota’s development was a major reason why there has been speculation about Mularkey’s job status, despite Tennessee ending an eight-year playoff drought. For much of this season, Mariota hadn’t been living up to the lofty expectations set for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft in his third professional season.
The Titans, a trendy preseason pick to win the AFC South, finished the year 9–7 and needed a win in Week 17 to make the playoffs after losing three of their last four regular-season games. Mariota’s passing yards, passing touchdowns and rushing yards were down from last year. A nagging hamstring injury may have been a bigger factor than the young quarterback let on, though, and longtime Titans insider Paul Kuharsky reported last month that Mariota’s surgically repaired lower right leg was still bothering him and might require a clean-up procedure. And, as his many dropped passes by receivers reminded us on Saturday, he hasn't always had much help around him.
But in the most important moments of the season, Mariota has reminded us all why he was the second overall pick three years ago. In the Week 17 game against Jacksonville, it was Mariota’s stiff arm on third-and-five to get the critical first down that iced the win and a postseason berth. Against the Chiefs, he one-upped himself.
Mariota’s touchdown pass to himself sparked the Titans comeback, but perhaps on a different night his thread-the-needle touchdown throw to Eric Decker for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter might have been his best play of the day. And, like last week against the Jaguars, Mariota sealed the win on the game-deciding play—not with a stiff arm this time, but by lowering his shoulder to throw a block against Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo on a 22-yard run by Derrick Henry. That play, which converted a third-and-10 inside the two-minute warning, allowing the Titans to kneel out the clock and advance to the divisional round.
It was a signature win for the Titans, thanks to a signature performance by Marcus Mariota.