The San Francisco 49ers’ recent hot streak came to an end Thursday night in a heartbreaking 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Coming into the game, the Niners were favored to win their 6th game in 7 weeks, and in the first quarter they looked unstoppable.
This time, though, it was the quarterback play that killed them. Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions, and after those mistakes, no amount of good from the rest of the team could hold back the Titans.
Jimmy G had been playing lights out the last few weeks, with 3 touchdowns and no picks in the previous two games. On Thursday, though, he looked rattled, throwing inaccurate passes and missing wide-open receivers.
On the defensive side, the 49ers looked dominant once again, especially early on. This led to a 10-0 Niners lead at halftime. But because of the turnovers, it was inevitable that the Titans would eventually find their footing. And in the second half, they did.
The Titans fed the ball to star wideout AJ Brown, who racked up 145 yards and a touchdown in 11 catches. Most of those yards came late in the game against a gassed 49ers defense. While some may blame this loss on that defense, they did more than enough to get a victory.
The fact is, these Niners need every part of their team to show up in order to win. Unfortunately, the Jimmy Garoppolo of the past few weeks must’ve missed the flight to Tennessee, because he was nowhere to be found on Thursday night.
This wasn’t a complete no-show for the 49ers. Deebo Samuel had a monster game in the air with 159 receiving yards. His most brilliant moment of the night was a 56 yard catch-and-run he took deep into Titans territory.
The catch set up the 49ers’ game-tying touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk.
The running backs came to play as well, with Jeff Wilson Jr. scoring the 49ers’ first touchdown and earning 45 yards on the ground.
The defensive line stepped up despite a relatively quiet game from star edge rusher Nick Bosa. Defensive ends Samson Ebukam, Kentavius Street and Jordan Willis combined for 3.5 sacks, with another .5 coming from linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was pressured constantly, and the Tennessee run game was effectively neutralized by the line.
Even the 49ers secondary showed up to play. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt had an impressive 6 tackles, and free safety Jimmie Ward was making plays, too. Cornerbacks Josh Norman and Ambry Thomas continued to struggle, but even Thomas is looking better compared to the last two weeks. He had a fantastic pass break-up covering Titans wideout AJ Brown that prevented a score.
Linebackers Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair had good games, too. Unfortunately, all of these performances weren’t enough to seal the win.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo takes the cake for biggest disappointment of the night. It may be harsh, but Garoppolo singlehandedly cost the 49ers this game with his performance.
Don’t believe it? Jimmy G’s first interception happened in the end-zone while trying to force the ball to George Kittle. At this point, the Niners were already up 7-0. If Garoppolo finds the open man, that’s a 14-0 lead on the Titans early in the game.
The next 49ers possession Garoppolo misses a wide open Kyle Juszczyk, which would have been an easy touchdown.
If he completes that pass, it’s a 21-0 Niners lead going into halftime.
Instead, the Titans came out swinging in the second half, tying the game at 10-10 and then taking the lead with an AJ Brown touchdown reception. From there, the Niners — the team that could’ve had a 3-score lead — were playing catch-up the rest of the night.
Garoppolo doesn’t have to be a star quarterback for the 49ers. He doesn’t have to perform anywhere near the level of a Brady, a Mahomes, or a Rodgers to keep his team competing.
All he has to do is manage the game, protect the ball, and avoid turnovers. In the past few weeks, he’s done just that, and they’ve won. Against the Titans on Thursday, though, Garoppolo couldn’t step up to the challenge.
As for other negatives from the game, left tackle Trent Williams had two costly penalties, which is rare for such a skilled veteran. The special teams unit had another rough night as well, with poor kicks from punter Mitch Wishnowsky giving the Titans a short field in key moments.
THE SILVER LINING
On the surface, things look bleak after a devastating loss. The 49ers are 8-7 now and face much stiffer competition for a wild card spot. While a win tonight would’ve nearly guaranteed a playoff appearance, the 49ers now have to fight harder than ever in the final two games to extend their season.
But there’s hope, and it comes ironically from the most disappointing fact of the night: this was a winnable game for the Niners. They let it slip away, which is always heartbreaking. But the 49ers’ early dominance over the Titans showed their potential. In that first quarter, they looked like world-beaters.
This team has the talent. They just need to learn to better overcome mistakes against good opponents. Remember, the Tennessee Titans are a playoff team, and with the Thursday win they own the 2nd overall seed in the AFC. If not for a few mishaps, the 49ers likely would’ve beaten one of the NFL’s best.
This team is good enough to compete with other contenders — that much is certain. And the season is far from over.
With this tough loss, we have the opportunity to learn a bit more about these San Francisco 49ers. Are they the type of team with grit, toughness, and determination to overcome adversity? If so, we’ll hopefully see a reinvigorated squad next Sunday against the Houston Texans.
But if these 49ers are a team that gives in and crumbles when setbacks arise, this late-season loss may prove to be devastating.
The Niners have a new chance to right the ship on January 2nd at home against the Texans.
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