Why the Tennessee Titans are set up to finally end their lengthy playoff drought

Three points. It might not seem like much, but it was everything to the Tennessee Titans . For a team that's been sitting dormant for far too long, like a certain scoundrel frozen in carbonite, last season's plus-3 point differential marked an incredible turnaround. In 2014, the Titans were outscored by 184 points. In 2015, they were outscored by 124 points. In 2016, they outscored their opposition by three points.

Which means over the course of three years, the Titans improved their point differential by 187 points. That's not insignificant.

Expect another improvement in 2017, and don't be surprised if the Titans, a team with an eight-season playoff drought, find a way to keep playing football games into January, when the postseason begins. The Titans might be primed for a surprise playoff run for the first time since Kerry Collins quarterbacked a team that was coached by everyone's favorite punching bag, Jeff Fisher.

To turn that possibility into reality, the Titans will likely emulate a team that conquered the regular season a year ago.

This year's Cowboys?

When Tony Romo went down with yet another back injury last season, all hope in Dallas was lost. The Dallas Cowboys , once again, were going to be doomed by Romo's health a year after they went 1-11 without him. The season ended before it had a chance to begin, so the thinking went.

But to the surprise of everyone, the Cowboys ended up posting the NFC's best record, winning 13 games. They skipped the rebuilding phase and went straight to the young and dominant phase.

The Titans won't win as many games or turn into the dominating, unbreakable force the Cowboys were last year, but they can follow the Cowboys' blueprint all the way into the playoffs. They can, if things break their way, be the AFC's miniature version of the Cowboys by pounding and taking care of the ball and as a result, helping their subpar defense by limiting the amount of plays they're forced to stop.

The similarities were already there last year.

Rush Attempts

Rush Yards

YPC

Offensive DVOA

Turnovers

Yards allowed per play

Cowboys

499

2,396

4.8

No. 3

15

5.5

Titans

476

2,187

4.6

No. 9 

18

5.5

The biggest difference? The Cowboys won 13 games, outscoring their opposition by 115 points. The Titans won nine games, outscoring their foes by three points. 

No, the Titans aren't going to morph into the Cowboys overnight. They aren't identical teams. But the pieces are in place for a surprise playoff run. The Titans have secured assets or potential assets at the following positions:

  • Quarterback: Marcus Mariota (asset with even more potential)
  • Running back: DeMarco Murray (asset) and Derrick Henry (asset with more potential)
  • Tight end: Delanie Walker (asset)
  • Receiver: Corey Davis (potential asset), Rishard Matthews (asset)
  • Defensive line: Jurrell Casey (one of the most underrated assets in football)
  • Cornerback: Adoree' Jackson (potential asset)
  • Safety: Johnathan Cyprien (asset after a solid 2016 with Jacksonville)

Still, the Titans definitely have needs. Their defense is lacking playmakers. They're nowhere close to becoming a Super Bowl contender, a team that can realistically take down the New England Patriots in the AFC. There's no denying that.

But ... baby steps. The Titans are just trying to build on their foundation and, if all goes well, earn an extra game or two at the end of the regular season.

Franchise passer in place

It starts, like it does for most playoff teams, with their quarterback. To this point in his career, Mariota's done everything he can to live up to the hype that came attached to him out of Oregon -- except, of course, stay healthy. If Mariota can stay healthy in 2017, he'll be the AFC South's second-best quarterback behind Andrew Luck (someone with his own injury issues).

In 27 career games, Mariota's completed 61.6 percent of his passes, averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, thrown 45 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, and generated a 93.8 passer rating. He's posted that favorable statline despite the fact that his best receiver has been a tight end. Mariota, to this point, has been awesome.

More advanced statistics demonstrate his success. Using Football Outsiders' metrics, Mariota was the 13th-best quarterback in 2016. By QBR, he was 12th. By DVOA (another FO metric), he was 11th. In two seasons, Mariota has already shaken the notion that he was a spread quarterback who couldn't run an NFL offense. 

He's running it just fine.

He's also improving. In his rookie season, he threw a touchdown on 5.1 percent of his passes and an interception on 2.7 percent of his attempts. His touchdown percentage last year rose to 5.8 and his interception percentage fell to 2.0.

None of this is intended to portray Mariota as a perfect quarterback. He still has his flaws, besides his inability to stay on the field. He's probably never going to be a deadly deep-ball passer, though he did already improve from Year 1 to Year 2 in that area.

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The key is that Mariota should continue to get better at every area of the game as his supporting cast continues to improve. And the Titans' supporting case is getting better, assuming Davis, the team's top pick, lives up to the hype. If that happens, Matthews, a pleasant surprise who caught nine touchdowns last year, will go from a WR1 to a WR2 -- a role he's better suited for. Surprise free agent Eric Decker visited Tennessee on Wednesday. If Decker and his 0.55 touchdowns per game sign with the Titans, Mariota will finally have a legitimate supporting cast. Walker, one of the game's best tight ends (23 touchdowns in the past four seasons), won't be his lone threat anymore.

Titans more than Mariota

The offensive line allowed 28 sacks, tied with Dallas and Chicago for the seventh-fewest. There's no reason to expect a regression in that area. The average age of the Titans' offensive line will be 26 when the season starts.

Notice anything about the image below?

Their two highest-graded players were offensive linemen.

Running back DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing behind the Cowboys' line not too long ago. He thinks the two units are comparable.

"How close are they?" Murray said, per NFL.com. "I mean, I run behind these guys every day. I have a lot of respect for Dallas and those guys -- Zack [Martin] and Trav [Frederick] and Tyron [Smith] and Doug Free . I'm still great friends with them. I think with the line we have here in Nashville with the Titans [that] we're one of the top in the league."

The Titans are a young offensive team that has the chance to make the leap from solid to great. As a whole, the Titans' offense ranked 11th in yards, 14th in points, and ninth in DVOA. The improving passing game isn't the only notable piece of the offense. After all, Mike Mularkey doesn't call it the "exotic smashmouth" because of Mariota's arm. 

Unlike most teams, much of the Titans' success comes down to their punishing ground game, led by Murray and supplemented by Derrick Henry. As The Ringer's Danny Kelly noted, they ran the second-most plays using three or more tight ends last year. While the rest of the league has turned into a shotgun, spread league, the Titans are going jumbo. 

It worked. Overall, the Titans ran the ball 476 times (fourth most) for 2,187 yards (third most), which means they averaged 4.6 yards per carry (fourth most). Murray did the heavy lifting, providing 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns, but don't overlook Henry's contributions in his rookie season, rushing for 490 yards and five touchdowns.

This might actually be the one area where the Titans have an edge over the Cowboys. Neither Murray nor Henry is as good of a runner as Ezekiel Elliott , but the Titans have two dependable runners, which should allow both to stay fresh deep into the season. 

The running game is important for a few reasons. One, Mariota was pretty dang good off play-action last year, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt with a 99.4 passer rating, per PFF. Those numbers aren't as gaudy as some other quarterbacks, but they're still an upgrade over his numbers without play action (7.2 YPA and a 94.7 passer rating). 

Two, it has the potential to eat up the clock. The Titans, on average, had the ball for 30:32, which ranked 18th in the NFL. They need to see that ranking rise so that their weak defense can remain off the field and face fewer plays.

The Titans' biggest hurdle to success is their defense. A year ago, they ranked 20th in yards allowed, 16th in points allowed, 23rd in takeaways, and 24th in DVOA. They were bad, even if they have some good parts. Jurrell Casey is one of the best, but most underrated defensive linemen in the game. Adoree' Jackson has the potential to develop into a top cornerback, but he's a rookie, so temper your expectations. Cyprien, who finished as PFF's fifth-highest graded safety last year, was a solid offseason addition.

But the Titans' defense will be a liability in 2017. There's no way around that. 

They can overcome that defense, though. Last year, they overcame their defense to go 9-7 -- missing out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker. With just marginal improvement on both sides of the ball, they have a chance to improve upon that win total by a game or at the very least go 9-7 again.

Big fish in a small pond?

Here's the thing: 9-7 might be good enough, because the AFC South stinks. The Houston Texans , nine-win division winners in each of the past two seasons, are going to be trotting out Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson under center. One is not a good quarterback (Savage) and the other is a complete unknown (Watson). It's not unreasonable to suggest that the Texans are bound for a regression, especially when you factor in the loss of cornerback A.J. Bouye and J.J. Watt's back issues. I'm not writing off the Texans -- they have as good of a chance as the Titans to wind up at nine or 10 wins -- but they're not a lock to win the division for a third straight season.

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars have built a good roster, but decided to ignore the most important position in all of sports: quarterback. Blake Bortles is getting another chance he doesn't deserve. Since he entered the league three years ago, he ranks 45th in completion percentage, 45th in yards per attempt, 28th in touchdown percentage, 43rd in interception percentage and 41st in passer rating (minimum 200 pass attempts). The Jaguars aren't making the leap until they find a quarterback.

Then you have the Indianapolis Colts -- a team with the best quarterback in the division, but one that is still building a competent roster around Andrew Luck, who by the way is still injured after his offseason shoulder surgery. With Ryan Grigson finally out and Chris Ballard in, the Colts are a threat once again and have as good of a chance as the Titans and the Texans to challenge for the AFC South title. 

I expect a three-team race for the division. It'll likely come down to luck -- who wins close games and who stays healthy -- and how each team's rookies develop (the Colts' Malik Hooker, the Texans' Deshaun Watson and the Titans' Corey Davis and Adoree' Jackson are the names to watch). But the Titans have a chance. How many offseasons have come and gone since we could say that?

Even if the Titans don't make it all the way to the playoffs, they've added excitement and intrigue to the AFC South. They've got a young, promising quarterback who is actually living up to the hype. They utilize a pounding ground assault, something lacking in today's NFL. They're a team worth watching because they're both good and different.

It's been a while, but the Titans finally matter again. 

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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