by Teresa M. Walker
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans had everything they needed to cap coach Mike Vrabel’s debut season with a second straight playoff berth.
Except a healthy quarterback.
Marcus Mariota watched from the sideline as Blaine Gabbert was intercepted twice in the final 9:05 Sunday night in a 33-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that snapped the Titans’ four-game winning streak and ended their season.
“We got to do a better job and figure out how to try to take the next step,” Vrabel said.
The Titans, who finished 9-7 for a third straight season, had listed Mariota as questionable for this game with neck and foot injuries. Mariota sat out one practice and was limited in two others, throwing the ball well enough that the fourth-year quarterback appeared on track to at least test himself in pregame warmups.
Mariota never took the field in pregame warmups, the decision already made for the No. 2 pick overall in the 2015 draft not to even dress for a win-and-in game to wrap up the regular season.
Vrabel declined to share any details on the seriousness of Mariota’s injury or when the decision was made not to play the quarterback. An ESPN.com report cited anonymous sources that Mariota was at risk of permanent damage to a nerve hurt by the stinger that knocked the quarterback out of last week’s win against Washington.
Vrabel said only that Mariota was as disappointed as his teammates over the loss.
“We made a decision that Marcus wasn’t going to play tonight,” said Vrabel. “We’ll continue to evaluate him and try to worry about his health and every one of those guys’ health — Marcus included.”
Gabbert said he didn’t know for certain that he would make his third start of the season until Sunday morning. Gabbert was 18 of 29 for a season-high 165 yards with a TD pass.
“It’s tough,” Gabbert said of the loss. “You want to go out there and perform well for the guys, lead the guys, get a win and get into the race. But I didn’t do enough. We didn’t’ do enough, and our season ended tonight.”
Some of the Titans said after the game that they knew early in the week that Mariota might not be able to play.
Center Ben Jones said Mariota would have played if he could have and his teammates love him to death.
“Trust me, Marcus is one of the toughest guys on this team, and if he could have played, he definitely would be out there,” Jones said. “We respect the hell out of him for what he does for this team and what he plays through. He’s one of the toughest son of a guns on the team.”
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard said the Titans had a chance to win, even without Mariota.
“They made more plays than us,” Woodyard said. “On defense, we didn’t do a good job of getting off the field in the first half. You’ve got to start fast against a team like that.”
With Gabbert making his third start of the season for Mariota, the Titans struggled for much of the game to do much on offense. Derrick Henry took the first offensive snap for Tennessee in the wildcat, and he ran for 93 yards. But the Titans held the ball for only 3 minutes, 50 seconds of the first quarter with Indianapolis (10-6) having a 139-15 edge in total offense.
Only linebacker Jayon Brown’s interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter and then stripping Colts running back Marlon Mack of the ball kept the Titans within 17-10 of the Colts at halftime. The Colts outgained the Titans 436-258, the seventh time this season that Tennessee didn’t reach 300 yards of total offense.
“As a whole, this game should eat us up all the way until next year,” Woodyard said. “We can build off this. You can learn a lot when you lose.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker