X-factor: A running Mariota gives Titans another dimension

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie might have been the happiest person at practice watching quarterback Marcus Mariota look like, well, Mariota.

The quarterback brushed aside a safety with a stiff-arm on his way to a big run.

When Mariota is running, the Titans are usually all smiles because their offense shows signs of life.

“That’s what we know he’s capable of doing, and when he’s capable of doing that, it helps our offense again I’ll tell you probably 80 percent,” Robiskie said Wednesday. “I hate to say that, but if he can’t do that or he’s in position that he can’t do that or that don’t happen, we’re not the offense we’re trying to be.”

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Mariota ran a career-high 10 times for a season-high 60 yards to help the Titans earn their first playoff berth since 2008. Better yet, teammates saw a swagger in Mariota as he got off the ground and stared down a defender to make them confident their quarterback is feeling good, possibly even as he did before a broken right leg ended his 2016 season a game early.

“That’s old Marcus, before the injury,” Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. “That’s him. This is the Marcus I been waiting to see — him using them legs and making things happen. We need to see that more out of him going forward.”

Titans coach Mike Mularkey loved Mariota’s body language, and now the Titans (9-7) need their quarterback who won the 2014 Heisman Trophy to keep running Saturday when they visit Kansas City (10-6) for an AFC wild-card game.

“We’re at that point right now when every man needs to do whatever he can, whatever it takes, to make this thing go,” Mularkey said. “It was good to see what he did the other night. Obviously, it helped us win the football game. I think it helped him gain a little confidence too that he can do more.”

An NFL quarterback needing a confidence boost sounds unusual, but Mariota’s third season with the Titans has easily been his worst statistically with a career-low 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Mariota has a career-high five TDs rushing, but the quarterback who missed six quarters in October with a strained left hamstring had his lowest average per carry yet at 5.2 yards per attempt.

The Titans dropped from third in the NFL in rushing last season to 15th this season.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has seen enough of Mariota after the quarterback led a game-winning drive late last season to know they have to be careful when he starts running.

“You don’t ever get tricked by that kind of speed that he has,” Reid said. “When he kicks that thing into overdrive, he can go, so you have to stay very disciplined with him. That will be one of the challenges for my defense.”

Mariota, who converted four first downs with his legs in the fourth quarter of last week’s 15-10 win over the Jaguars , said he just took advantage of how Jacksonville was playing the Titans. Mariota says running came partially from feeling better and simple necessity.

“At this point in time, every guy is probably not going to feel 100 percent,” Mariota said. “It’s just that time of the year. With the magnitude of these games, you’ve got to win these games. You’re going to find a way to make a play and hopefully help your team win.”

Mariota has heard a lot from friends and fans on how he stiff-armed Jaguars safety Barry Church. So does he think he has his “swagger” back just in time for his NFL playoff debut?

“It was just me being me,” Mariota said. “Again, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. This is the time in the season where you’ve just got to lay it all on the line.”

Notes: Derrick Henry said Wednesday he was not happy at all with his performance last week with 28 carries for 51 yards. He took a screen 66 yards for the Titans’ lone offensive touchdown. But Henry said he didn’t feel like a workhorse back and “kind of felt soft.” Henry says he hasn’t stopped thinking about that game since the game ended and has been working hard to be better. … RB DeMarco Murray (right knee), CB Logan Ryan and S Da'Norris Searcy (illness) and CB Brice McCain (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Jags ‘threw a tantrum’ when Marrone started making changes

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Jacksonville’s locker room was abuzz late last season. Four guys played table tennis while others crowded around a small table for dominoes. Two 80-inch televisions were tuned to a sports highlight show, and music blared from one corner of the room.

Doug Marrone, the team’s offensive line coach at the time, walked through and shook his head.

“Can you believe this?” Marrone whispered.

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The Jaguars were in the middle of a nine-game losing streak that would ultimately cost coach Gus Bradley his job. Marrone had watched from afar for two years, witnessing an atmosphere he felt was too loose, too laid-back and too lenient amid losing.

So when Marrone was hired to replace Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3).

The ping pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed. The locker room stalls were overhauled, too, with Marrone mixing and matching position groups and putting certain players next to veteran leaders and/or NFL role models.

“We definitely threw a tantrum,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “Went in there and talked to him about it. Definitely wasn’t happy. I learned just to be quiet, you know, and go with the flow. He’s been at it longer than I have, and I’m just the football player. He says do this and I go do it. Just learn to follow him, and I’m glad I did.”

Marrone saved the most significant changes for the practice fields.

Marrone, top executive Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell wanted a much tougher and more physical team. They drafted bruising running back Leonard Fournette and fiery left tackle Cam Robinson to complement a defense that was significantly beefed up in free agency with the addition of All-Pro pass-rusher Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and veteran safety Barry Church.

They also designed an offseason program that was more grueling than most players had experienced. Marrone’s message was clear: Go hard or go home.

“You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty funny just to see us now. I guess he does know what he’s doing.”

The Jaguars were in full pads nearly every day during training camp, a tortuous stretch in draining heat and humidity that left rookies and veterans questioning the process and wondering if it would pay off. It was the NFL’s version of boot camp. Break them down, then build them up.

It ultimately brought players closer, making them accountable to each other and causing them to care more for each other. Winning was the final piece, and thumping Houston 29-7 in the season opener was all the proof players needed.

“It was the toughest training camp I’ve ever been a part of,” said linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his 11th season. “Coach Marrone would talk to us and say, `Listen, I have a plan and you have to trust me.’ With that, guys were able to say, `OK, we haven’t gotten what we wanted in years past doing things a certain way, so we have to buy in, trust the head man and know that that’ll bring us success when it’s time.’

“It was difficult just because of so many changes from what we were used to. I think the most important thing is we always said, `Well, if it helps us win, then it’s all good.'”

Jacksonville had lost 63 of 80 games over the previous five seasons – the worst record in the NFL during that span – and had been through two coaching changes.

Coughlin’s return was a key part of the team’s revival, and although the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the New York Giants gets much of the outside credit for the team’s turnaround, the reality is Marrone was the one pushing all the right buttons.

Marrone has been other places where players resisted, prompting personnel moves that would slow progress. That wasn’t the case in Jacksonville, and he credited his players for being open to change.

“They gave our staff the opportunity to say, `This is what we want to do. This is what we believe in as coaches or as an organization. This is how we want to handle ourselves,”‘ Marrone said. “We are still working toward that. It is not perfect by any means.”

It’s clearly working, though. The Jaguars are in the title game for the third time in franchise history, one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance.

“They say (stuff) rolls downhill,” Jackson said. “Well, the good stuff rolls downhill, too. … It’s all worth it when you win.”

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Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey tells fans ‘we’re going to Super Bowl’

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey did pretty much the same thing that upset his Jacksonville Jaguars teammates last week.

He started looking ahead.

Ramsey told thousands of fans awaiting the team’s return from Pittsburgh late Sunday that the Jaguars “are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that (expletive).”

Jacksonville (12-6), of course, has the AFC championship game at New England remaining before even getting to the Super Bowl. The small-market franchise is winless in seven games in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and 1-10 all-time against the Patriots (14-3).

Ramsey’s comments surely will find their way north.

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“You come back and you’ve got all the fans here and things of that nature,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said.

“Obviously that’s something that everybody, they want to do when you get close. Whether you have to say it or not? The one thing I do know is the road to it always leads through New England.

“Our focus isn’t on anything else but the New England Patriots. It will be a great challenge for us obviously.”

The Jags took exception to the Steelers talking about facing the Patriots instead of them, and used it as motivation in a 45-42 victory Sunday.

Nonetheless, they stood behind their outspoken and ultra-talented defender.

“To me, it’s just a man that has confidence in his team,” defensive tackle Abry Jones said. “What’s he going to say? He knows what we’re going up there to do. It’s not like he ain’t saying nothing that’s not true.”

Fellow defensive tackle Malik Jackson said the difference between Ramsey’s remarks and comments from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, running back Le'Veon Bell and safety Mike Mitchell is the timing.

“We’re so close that I think it’s OK to say, `Hey, we’re going to do this,”‘ Jackson said. “It’s one of those things that I think he believes in himself after the game he just had, locking down one of the best receivers in the game.

“He’s pretty hyped and he wants to let everybody know he’s hyped, so I think he’s just happy and he understands that we have a giant in front of us and we’ve just got to pay all the attention to this team.

“We don’t even know who’s going to play in the Super Bowl because we’re not looking ahead to that.”

Ramsey was unavailable during the team’s open locker room session Monday.

“He’s going to talk, but we’re going to show up,” defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said. “I just don’t like when people talk all week. You talk reckless and you lose.”

The Jaguars voiced their displeasure with being overlooked by the Steelers last week and were really vocal after the victory at Heinz Field. Players yelled, “Where’s Mike Mitchell at now” as they came off the field.

“I feel like they took us lightly. I don’t know why because we whooped them the first time,” Ngakoue said. “You’ve got to respect all your opponents. That’s why we’re not big in trash-talking. We’re big in playing on Sunday.

“Real guys, real people don’t talk. We throw the first punch. We threw the first punch and we got the victory.”

And now they have a matchup against the NFL’s most successful franchise over the past two decades.

The Jaguars are 1-3 against New England in the postseason, with the lone victory coming after the 1998 season – before coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady teamed up to take five Super Bowl titles.

Jacksonville’s win came against coach Pete Carroll and backup quarterback Scott Zolak.

The Jags are 0-7 against the Brady-Belichick combination.

“We’re not going to go out there like the Steelers the week before and talk about people in a bad way and give them bulletin board news,” Jackson said.

“We just continue to work and earn respect. … We just keep proving people wrong. (Blake Bortles) keeps proving people wrong, and we just keep going on it and pounding people. It’s just awesome to see and awesome to be a part of.

“We understand we have to do what we have to do or we’ll be watching the Super Bowl at home like everybody else.”

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