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Tennessee Titans

What does a successful season look like for the Titans?

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Tennessee Titans Running Back DeMarco Murray (29) takes a hand-off from Tennessee Titans Quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) during the NFL football game between the Tennessee Titans and the San Diego Chargers on November 06, 2016, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire)
Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire

It’s been nine years since the Tennessee Titans last reached the postseason.

They made huge strides in the right direction last year, though, improving their win total by six from 2015 and finishing with the same record as the AFC South champion Houston Texans.

Based on those gains — and based on expectations — the only way Tennessee will realistically be able to call 2017 a success is if they make the playoffs.

“It definitely would not be a successful year (without making the playoffs),” Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey said. “That’s the only goal we really have around here — get into the playoffs, get into the chess match and get a chance to fight for the big boy.

“Going 9-7 (isn’t enough) anymore. We’re able to do that. Now we’ve got to get to the playoffs.”

Casey is one of many Titans, of course, who’ve gone into season after season hoping to make the playoffs. But making the postseason in 2017 seems like a much more realistic goal than it had in previous years. The Titans should carry some confidence into this season after beating six playoff teams last year, winning five of their last six games, then bolstering their two weakest spots — wide receiver and cornerback — during the offseason.

Making the playoffs “is definitely realistic,” Casey said. “You’ve got the players here, you’ve got the mindset and you’ve got the coaches to make sure the scheme is working. As long as you’ve got those pieces and the players execute, we’re going to be able to fight with those top teams.”

So just what will lead the Titans to that successful season — and a playoff berth?

Here are the three big things that need to happen:

A winning divisional record — It’s no coincidence that the Titans’ most recent playoff appearance was following the 2008 season, the last time they posted a winning AFC South record. In the eight years since 2008, the Titans have posted a divisional mark of 14-34. The Titans have lost 11 straight games to Indianapolis and eight of their last 10 games to Houston. The Titans have to start beating the teams they see twice a season.

A healthier Marcus Mariota — I don’t think people should go overboard about Mariota’s injuries during the first two seasons. He’s missed five of 32 games during that stretch — and only one game last year. Still, those numbers don’t stack up favorably compared with some other recent first-rounders: Carolina’s Cam Newton has only missed three games in six seasons; Oakland’s Derek Carr has missed one game in three seasons; Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has missed two games in six seasons.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes against the Denver Broncos in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

The Titans are just 1-4 in games Mariota has missed, with the lone victory coming in a relatively meaningless season-ender against Houston last season. A full 16-game season for the third-year quarterback would be a major step in the right direction for the Titans.

Improved pass defense — Despite piling up 40 sacks — tied for sixth best in the league — Tennessee still allowed 269 passing yards per contest, tied for second worst in the league. In signing cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien, and by drafting corner Adoree Jackson, the Titans appear to have improved the secondary. If the pass defense can start complementing a run defense that finished second in the NFL last season, the Titans should be formidable on that side of the ball.

When the Titans talk about success in the coming season, many of them mention the NHL’s Nashville Predators, who ignited the city with a run to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Having seen how the Music City responded to the Predators’ winning ways, the Titans would — at long last — like to experience something similar this year.

“It would be huge, really huge, for us and the city,” Titans linebacker Avery Williamson said. “I’d like to see that happen for football. It would kind of change the mindset from what it has been for the Titans.”

— Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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