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Titans take good care of Mariota

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Marcus Mariota showed what the Tennessee Titans believed when they drafted him: The quarterback can be special when given a little time to throw.

The challenge now for the Titans is keeping the rookie upright.

Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk wanted her franchise's investment in the Heisman Trophy winner protected when she fired Ken Whisenhunt last week, and interim coach Mike Mularkey followed up with a couple lineup changes and tweaks to their offensive scheme. The result was a 34-28 overtime win in New Orleans where Mariota wasn't sacked even once and hit only twice.

"No matter what the score, no matter what the time is in the game, we have a chance with this guy," Mularkey said Monday.

With the protection, Mariota turned in his best game yet after missing two games with an injured left knee, and he also surprised the Titans being able to move around better than they expected. The No. 2 draft pick overall threw for a career-high 371 yards, the most by a Titans quarterback in nearly two years.

Mariota joined Tom Brady as the NFL's only quarterbacks with four touchdown passes and no interceptions in two games this season. He also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw four TD passes with no interceptions in two games.

Mariota already has more TD passes (13) than either Jake Locker or Vince Young ever managed in a season with this team. Against the Saints in overtime, Mariota was simply perfect: 6 of 6 for 62 yards capped by the game-winning TD pass to Anthony Fasano.

"He's a real tough kid," Fasano said after the game. "We respect him. As one of the younger guys he's still one of the leaders. We're glad to have him back."

The Titans (2-6) snapped a six-game skid with the win. They return home where Mariota will play against his third Heisman Trophy winner this season when Cam Newton and Carolina (8-0) visit Sunday.

But giving Mariota time to throw was a priority a week after giving up seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits.

Mularkey went with a quicker passing game and reminded Mariota to do his part by getting rid of the ball faster. The interim coach switched Byron Bell from left guard back to right tackle and replaced Bell with Joe Looney, signed Oct. 20. Mularkey also kept his tight ends in more, giving the offensive line extra blocking help.

The result led to no sacks allowed for the first time this season after giving up at least six in three different games under Whisenhunt. It was the first time in 13 games that Tennessee hadn't allowed a sack. An offense that scored only three TDs in the past four games combined scored the second-most points this season.

"Without them, we wouldn't have gotten this victory and Marcus wouldn't have been able to make those throws," Walker said.

Mularkey had the same 3-20 record in his last 23 games as a head coach with Jacksonville and Buffalo that got Whisenhunt fired Nov. 3 by Tennessee. Mularkey finally won his first game as a head coach with a team, and he had told the Titans they could earn Monday off with a victory.

Veterans immediately got excited, but Mularkey says the rookies were left wondering what that meant on a team that had lost 16 of its last 17 games.

"I think we all obviously needed something positive," Mularkey said.

Notes: Mularkey said CB Jason McCourty, who has missed the last two games, is getting second opinions on his injured groin. WR Kendall Wright (left knee) will not practice Wednesday but is healing quicker than the Titans expected. Mularkey said pulling CB Perrish Cox will be day to day after being pulled from the Saints' game to protect his hamstring.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes in the first half against New Orleans on Sunday. The rookie from Oregon had four TD passes. AP PHOTO