Marcus Mariota among those with a ton at stake in NFL's Week 17


Marcus Mariota returned to practice for the Titans on Thursday. It was a positive development for a quarterback dealing with a neck injury that's put his availability for this weekend's win-and-in showdown with the Colts in peril.

Let's make something clear here: The Titans need their quarterback on the field Sunday night. They're already without Jurrell Casey, their All-Pro interior disrupter who was sent to injured reserve this week with a knee injury. If Mariota's body doesn't cooperate, Cris Collinsworth will be sliding toward Al Michaels to sell the world on the underdog moxie of Blaine Gabbert. Nobody wants this. Blaine Gabbert doesn't even want this. This cannot happen.

There are surely some dummies amongst the Football Cognoscenti who will point out that Gabbert played well against the Redskins last Saturday (he was ... fine) and therefore is comparative as a player to Mariota. And while it's true that Mariota has produced at, like, one quarter of the level of Patrick Mahomes this season (Mariota has 11 touchdown passes all season), he still possesses upside that doesn't exist with Gabbert. So stop that, hot-takers.

We've seen the good version of Mariota in spurts over the past four seasons. Recently, too. He won a playoff game in Arrowhead last January. Remember this play? That was him! Last month, he went over 300 yards and completed 22 of 23 passes in a loss to the Texans. The week after that, he led the Titans to a comeback win over the Jets that had Nissan Stadium rocking. If you squint hard enough, Mariota can look like the franchise passer Tennessee thought it was getting when he was chosen second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The numbers never seem to support Mariota, however. This year has been particularly grim in that department. He ranks 26th in passing yards, 29th in touchdowns and 22nd in passer rating. His per-game passing yards mark of 180.6 puts him ahead of only Josh Rosen and Josh Allen, two rookie quarterbacks just struggling to survive on bad teams. To borrow a phrase from longtime Jets scribe Rich Cimini, a Mariota-led Titans offense often looks like it's playing on a 120-yard field on a 10-degree incline.

Durability also remains a legitimate concern surrounding Mariota, who has missed or been knocked out of four games this season. It's a recurring issue for a player who has yet to start 16 games in a season. A hamstring issue cost him a game in 2017. In 2016, he broke his leg in Week 16. A knee injury cost him the final weeks of his rookie season. Durability is a skill in football, and Mariota doesn't have it.

Sunday night could act as something of a referendum as the Titans try to decide how to move forward at the quarterback position. The team already picked up Mariota's fifth-year option for 2019, but we're entering the window where teams typically look to lock up a young QB they believe in. This was the exact position the Jaguars found themselves in last offseason with Blake Bortles. Jacksonville gambled on Bortles' upside ... and lost big. Could the mistake of one AFC South team spook another?

The Jags felt compelled to deepen their ties to Bortles based in part on Bortles' solid showing in last January's playoffs. You could see the same thing happening in Nashville if Mariota gets hot and the Titans win a couple more games. That seems like a huge ask at this stage, but perhaps Mariota surprises us all. His stage awaits on Sunday night.

Some quick thoughts on a few other individuals with much riding on the outcomes of Week 17:

Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: The man is a certified Philly Icon on the scale of Rocky Balboa. But what happens if St. Nick goes off on Sunday in an Eagles win? What if the Vikings lose? What if Foles then torches the Bears in the Wild Card Round? At what point do the Eagles have to entertain the idea of not letting Carson Wentz's backup get away this offseason? My guess is that it would probably take another run to the Super Bowl -- and that probably won't happen. But still. Let's check back in on this in a week.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns: Speaking of icons, Mayfield is already well on his way to that status in Cleveland. He's been one of the best quarterbacks in football for a month, and Giants running back Saquon Barkley is no longer the hands-down favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. If Mayfield thrives on Sunday and knocks the hated Ravens out of the playoffs in the process, he's getting the hardware. Sorry, Saquon.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees' backup will likely see most if not all of the snaps on Sunday for the Saints, who have already locked up the No. 1 seed. It creates a convenient final free-agency audition for Bridgewater, who will be the most compelling quarterback on the market. Sure, the Saints would absolutely love to keep Bridgewater in the building as a safety net and ostensible heir to Brees, but Bridgewater is going to sprint to a QB-needy team on that surgically repaired knee next March. After three years on the sideline, Teddy B is ready to ball as somebody's QB1.

Mike Tomlin, head coach, Pittsburgh Steelers: There's almost no chance the Steelers fire Tomlin. Chris Wesseling pointed out on the most recent "Around The NFL Podcast" that Pittsburgh hasn't fired a head coach in more than 70 years! But what if a deeply frustrating season ends with an embarrassing loss to the Bengals? There will undoubtedly be some soul-searching on the banks of the three rivers.

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants: The Giants willingly entered QB purgatory by passing on all non-Baker Mayfield related QB prospects with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft. The upcoming class doesn't appear to have an immediate-impact guy at QB, while the free-agent class doesn't project to include any huge upgrades over the current man behind center. Yep, there's a better than 50-50 chance the Giants roll into 2019 with Manning. A strong performance against the Cowboys' backups in the finale will only strengthen the Eli case. The man is unkillable.

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: This version of Tom Brady -- this version of the Patriots -- is simply not equipped to win three games, including some road contests, in a very deep AFC. Securing a first-round bye is imperative as New England welcomes the Jets and surging rookie Sam Darnold into its building. The Pats couldn't possibly blow this game ... could they?

Dan Hanzus writes two columns a week for and hosts the award-winning Around The NFL Podcast. Follow him on Twitter if you want.



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