NASHVILLE – Sure, it might be too early to go head over heels over the Titans chances this season.
But don't tell that to the players.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Jeremy McNichols both somersaulted into the end zone for scores in the team's 22-17 preseason loss to the New England Patriots on Saturday night at Nissan Stadium.
The flips provided a pair of highlight-reel plays on a night when the Titans showed some encouraging signs in preseason game No.2, despite losing the lead late when back-ups entered the contest.
"Hat's off to those guys for leaping and stuff," a smiling A.J. Brown said of the flips. "That was pretty crazy. But I'm going to stay on the ground."
With a pair of preseason games and three weeks before the team's regular season opener in Cleveland, however, there's still plenty of work to be done for the Titans, who finished 9-7 a year ago and out of the playoffs during a year when the Texans and Colts from the AFC South advanced into the postseason.
At this point, the Titans want to keep building positive momentum, with plans to take flight in Cleveland during the regular season opener on September 8. On Saturday night, they made plays on offense and defense, but they also made some blunders.
Mariota completed 6-of-9 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown – an 11-yard strike to tight end Delanie Walker -- to give the Titans an early lead. Mariota added a two-point conversion in spectacular fashion, which made it 8-0.
On the play, Mariota flipped over the goalline after being hit by Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon, causing fans at Nissan Stadium to hold their collective breath. But Mariota was just fine, and his passer rating (123.8) in three series of action was good, too. Mariota played just one series in the preseason opener at Philadelphia.
"I was getting more grief from my teammates – they told me not to do it again," Mariota said of the leap, and landing. "I was trying to make a play. In the moment, I played instinctively and tried to get the points."
Walker's touchdown was one to celebrate – it was his first game back since Week One of last season, when he suffered a broken ankle in the regular season opener at Miami.
"It felt good just to be out there and get that old feeling back," Walker said. "I never doubted it."
Not to be outdone by Mariota's flip into the end zone, McNichols had an acrobatic score as well, as he flipped into touchdown territory on his 15-yard touchdown catch on a ball thrown by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who replaced Mariota at the start of the second half. The score gave the Titans a 15-8 lead, and they expanded on that lead with a safety in the second quarter after New England was called for holding in the end zone.
On his score, McNichols dove from the two-yard line and crossed the goalline as he sailed out of bounds, an athletic move that drew smiles from everyone, including Mariota, who watched the rest of the game in a baseball cap after an early departure.
"I felt like I was in the air for 10 minutes," McNichols said. "I didn't know if I'd scored until I heard the crowd. My teammates were like: 'Good job, good job."
Like Mariota, Tannehill played well, completing 7-of-11 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 117.2.
Mariota was happy with the way the first team offense ended the night, but he wants to see more consistency. The Titans went three-and-out on their first two drives.
"It wasn't real good to start off," Mariota said. "I thought we put together a nice drive at the end, but we have to come out better."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did not play in the game.
Instead, Brian Hoyer got the start – and a tough welcome into the game. Titans cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted Hoyer on the second play of the game, and the Patriots didn't get their first score until after Tennessee's first-team defense had left the field.
New England first scored on a one-yard touchdown run by Brandon Bolden in the first half. Running back Nick Brossette's one-yard touchdown run in the second half cut Tennessee's halftime lead from 17-8 to 17-15 in the third quarter.
The Patriots took a 22-17 late in the fourth quarter on a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jarrett Stidham to receiver Damoun Patterson, and the Titans couldn't rally.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the work against New England this week – the team practiced against the Patriots twice leading up to last night's game – was beneficial.
"It was great," Vrabel said. "To have a team come in here that is a proven winner, a proven organization, how they operate and how they do things. For us to be able to compete against them for two days and then play a game against them, is always going to be beneficial."
The Titans face the Pittsburgh Steelers in preseason game No.3 next Sunday at Nissan Stadium.
The Tennessee Titans take on the New England Patriots in the second preseason game Saturday night at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donald Page)
The Tennessee Titans prepare to take on the New England Patriots in the second preseason game Saturday night at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donald Page)
Titans players arrive at Nissan Stadium for Saturday night's preseason game against the New England Patriots. (Photos: Donald Page)