NASHVILLE, Tenn. –** In pursuit of a postseason berth for the first time since 2008, the Titans delivered another playoff-worthy defensive performance on Sunday.
The offense couldn't keep up.
What resulted was a blow to the Titans' stated goal since before the start of this season – winning the AFC South division and capturing an automatic playoff berth.
It doesn't have to be a fatal blow.
The Titans know that winning their next two games – at San Francisco and home against the Los Angeles Rams – will ensure a chance at playing for the division title in the season finale against Jacksonville.
In other words, a division crown is still entirely in this team's hands.
But the Titans can't afford the kind of lopsided effort – impressive defense, struggling offense – that they displayed in Sunday's 12-7 loss.
Had you told me before the game that the Titans – playing without defensive standouts Derrick Morgan and DaQuan Jones – would record eight sacks, hold the Cardinals without a touchdown and limit Arizona to 261 total yards, I'd have been certain Tennessee would have picked up a third straight victory.
That's one of the biggest disappointments for the Titans, wasting a defensive effort that did everything but win the game on its own.
Even when the game seemed all but over following Marcus Mariota's second interception, the Titans' defense refused to let it end. Arizona took over at the Titans' 7-yard line with 5:48 left in the fourth quarter, but Tennessee's defense threw the Cardinals back 10 yards, limiting them to a Phil Dawson field goal that put the Cards up 12-7.
"The defense played out of their mind for us the whole game," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "I mean the whole game. We had a chance to win the game because of our defense."
Coming from behind in the late going has been a specialty this season for Mariota, who'd recorded four game-winning drives in his first 11 contests. But the Titans' final two drives – both of which could have won the game – resulted in 10 plays for just four yards.
That lack of production was a disappointing illustration of the Titans' offense throughout the contest, especially in the second half. Over the final 30 minutes, the Titans totaled 64 yards, three first downs and zero points – turning the ball over twice.
It's all but impossible to win with those kind of offensive numbers no matter how strong the defensive effort.
"It's on the offense," Mariota said while accepting blame afterward. "The defense played outstanding. They have been all year. We just haven't been able to put the ball in the end zone and score points."
The Titans now find themselves in a challenging spot, some 1,600 miles from home as they settle in for a week's worth of practice at Arizona State University before traveling to San Francisco next weekend.
Awaiting them on Sunday is a 49ers team that's won two straight games behind new starter Jimmy Garropolo, who's 2-0 in San Francisco and averaging over 300 passing yards in those contests.
But the Titans will be less concerned with the opponent than with themselves this week.
The number one itch that needs to be scratched is Mariota, who's thrown seven interceptions over the past four weeks – and a career-high 14 picks in 13 games this year.
"I have been hurting our team," Mariota said, "and I have to find ways to get better and improve on it."
Mariota hasn't been at fault for all the interceptions, of course, as his receivers – three of whom are new to the team this season – have let him down on occasion.
That was the case on Mariota's first interception against Arizona. Rishard Matthews didn't break across the face of a safety on a post route, so Mariota's throw ended up going straight to Tramon Williams.
But on the second interception, Mariota said he simply never saw linebacker Josh Bynes, who dropped into coverage and made the pick.
"The defense gave us an opportunity," Mariota said. "We were down a score. We just didn't make enough plays."
In the end, this was a game Mariota and the Titans' offense will want to forget as quickly as possible.
Every team – every offense – stumbles on occasion.
This one didn't by any means kill the Titans' playoff hopes, but Tennessee knows it can't afford a repeat performance at this stage of the season.
-- Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
The Tennessee Titans take on the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14 at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)