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Hawaii dreams have become a possibilty

 


The Tennessee Titans may or may not make the NFL playoffs this season.

And while the Titans have only a slim chance of doing so, there's still a possibility that former Havre High star Marc Mariani could be still have one more game left in his rookie season — even if the Titans don't make the playoffs and the regular season ends on Jan. 2.

Back in July and August, mentioning the words Pro Bowl in conjunction with Mariani's name seemed unfathomable. After all, as a seventh-round draft pick of the Titans in 2010, and coming from FCS Montana, Mariani was simply fighting to make the Titans 53-man roster at that point.

But after all he's done in his rookie year, and as the 2010 season winds down, Mariani's name rarely comes up anymore without mentioning the words Pro Bowl.

Mariani comes into Sunday's road game against the Kansas City Chiefs as the second-ranked kickoff returner in the AFC and is fourth in the NFL in that category. To date, he's returned 47 kickoffs for 1,313 yards and a 25.7 yard average. All of those numbers are AFC bests. And it's one reason why Mariani was heavily pushed in Pro Bowl voting this season. Three kickoff returners lead the NFL ahead of Mariani, and only Brad Smith of the Jets is ahead of Mariani in the AFC in average per return.

But what makes him even more of an attractive candidate to represent the Titans and the AFC in Hawaii at end of January, is he's one of the few return men in the NFL who return both kicks and punts. Coming into Sunday's game, Mariani is sixth in the NFL in punt returns, but still leads the AFC. To date, he has 321 punt-return yards, one touchdown and a 14.6 yard per return average. Mariani also has no negative return yards on the season — a rare feat for a full-time kick returner. Mariani is also second in all of the NFL in total return yards for the season.

And while he leads the AFC in punt returns, it's still rare for a rookie to be voted to the Pro Bowl, but that didn't stop fans from turning out in droves to vote for him on NFL.com this season. Mariani has quickly become a popular figure in Nashville, and his exciting kick return abilities are a big reason why.

And even though four months ago, even he couldn't dream of possibly playing in the NFL's glamorous All-Star game in Honolulu so soon, now that it's a reality, he says it would be a dream come true.

"That would be an unbelievable dream come true," Mariani said recently of possibly going to the Pro Bowl. "To be at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, playing with the best in the world, that would be something truly special."

Special indeed. But Mariani is more focused on just helping the Titans win, especially since they haven't been eliminated from playoff contention yet, even after a rough six-game losing skid. And if he does his job as he has all season, he'll not only help the Titans keep winning, but Mariani could just wind up playing alongside the NFL's elite at the end of the season.

Pro Bowl voting online is closed, but fans can still vote via mobile phone. After fan voting comes to an end, the votes will tabulated and included as part of a formula for selecting players for the game that includes voting by all NFL coaches and play representatives from each team. Pro Bowl rosters are announced at the end of the regular season. NFL.com doesn't show total voting, but does show who leads at each position, and as fan voting came to an end, N.Y. Jets return man Brad Smith was leading the AFC.

"I have a couple of more games to prove myself," Mariani said. "So hopefully, with a little luck we could be in Hawaii later this year."

 

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