NASHVILLE, Tenn. —** The Titans marched into Houston a confident bunch on Sunday, having pounded a couple of good defenses over the previous two weeks.
A win over the Texans would have been a huge statement -- giving the Titans their first win in Houston since the 2011 season and a 2-0 record in the AFC South.
Instead, the Titans now find themselves licking their wounds in more ways than one following a humbling 57-14 loss to the Texans. Tennessee not only suffered the one-sided defeat, but lost quarterback Marcus Mariota to a hamstring injury in the second half.
Tennessee learned at least a couple of lessons in this ugly outing:
One is that the Texans, AFC South winners in four of the last six seasons, won't be giving up their title without a serious battle.
Second, Mariota isn't the only rising star quarterback in this division, evidenced by the tremendous performance of Houston rookie Deshaun Watson.
The former Clemson standout was dazzling with his arm and his feet, throwing for four touchdown passes and running for a fifth. Over the last two weeks, Watson – playing against defenses crafted by New England's Bill Belichick and the Titans' Dick LeBeau – has completed 47-of-67 passes for 584 yards and six touchdowns, running for two more.
"I thought their quarterback played extremely well," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "He did a lot of good things and made a lot of good throws, really throws that only they could catch. I was very impressed with him."
Still, it's hard to explain just how different the Titans looked against the Texans, compared to the previous two weeks that saw the team pile up a combined 70 points against Jacksonville and Seattle. The Titans' immediate challenge is to make a 180-degree turn back in the right direction, as they prepare to face Miami next Sunday.
Mularkey noted how often teams can rebound in a league as fickle as the NFL, pointing out that the Jaguars responded to their thumping from the Titans by – one week later – crushing the Baltimore Ravens.
"Tough lesson for us," Mularkey said. "That may be part of the process. We need to have something like that happen for us to ... It happens every week (in the NFL)."
Here are some of the issues the Titans will have to deal with as they look to return to their winning ways against the Dolphins:
Quarterback quandary – If Mariota is out next week, the Titans will have to rely once again on Matt Cassel. Cassel admittedly entered the contest in a difficult situation on Sunday, with the Titans already trailing 37-14 in the second half. The Texans didn't have to worry about the run at that point, so they were aggressive in coverage and in the pass rush. Houston picked off a harried Cassel twice, sacked him twice and caused him to lose a fumble.
If Mariota is sidelined by injury this week, Cassel will be much better prepared against the Dolphins, as he'll get a chance for first-team reps. But he'll need to be sharper than what he showed against the Titans.
Secondary situation – The Titans' secondary – and in particular the team's cornerbacks – suffered through a rough afternoon, unable to stop Watson from connecting repeatedly with receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Tennessee entered the contest ranked 26th against the pass, but at least some of the yardage surrendered over the previous two weeks had been gained by two opponents – Jacksonville and Seattle – that were playing catch-up football. The Titans were more intent on stopping the big play late in those games.
But Watson and the Texans attacked from the outset of Sunday's contest, scoring on their first five drives. A Titans secondary that upgraded offseason with the addition of Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson needs to be better.
Turnover trouble – The Titans entered the game against the Texans having suffered just one turnover in their first three games, a large part of the reason they were a plus-two in the giveaway/takeaway department. Mariota had tossed only one interception in those first three contests.
But the Texans intercepted Mariota twice and caused forced three Cassel turnovers as well. Houston turned those five interceptions into 20 points, including 10 in the decisive first half.
It's admittedly a challenge for Titans fans to look at the big picture in the immediate aftermath of a loss like Sunday's.
But the reality of the situation is that – thanks to Jacksonville's overtime loss to the New York Jets – the Titans (2-2) are still tied atop the AFC South with the Jaguars and Texans.
In addition, they'll next week be facing a Miami team that's been shut out in two straight games.
Whether the Titans will be able to forget about the loss to Houston – or whether it will impact them for more than one week – will be evident against the Dolphins.
—* Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.*
The Tennessee Titans take on the Houston Texans in Week 4 action at NRG Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)