Niners fall to Titans: Here’s what we learned

Three key points to ponder down the stretch run

It’s never easy with the 49ers.

They’re clearly emerging as one of the best teams in the NFL. But they don’t give the fans a break. Every game, we see stellar play, tremendous talent and clear deficiencies.

And so, the roller coaster continued in Tennessee Thursday night, where the Niners and Titans put on a stellar show for the nation, resulting in a last-second, 20-17 loss for the boys from Santa Clara. They started strong, stalled for the middle of the game, then almost pulled it out at the end. Death by field goal. The Titans prevailed, and the Niners took a long plane ride home, helmets in hand.

That leaves us with a string of questions, as usual. How can a team go from preseason contender, to mid-season cadaver, to late-season pretender to the throne? It’s all part of the NFL season of parity. Or should we say parody.

Were the Niners believing in themselves a little too much?

“We weren’t overconfident coming in,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I think we were pretty real with where we’re at. We have a confident team. … Felt like we played well. We thought that we’d come out strong. I think we did. But you still have to play good football in all phases.”

“If I had to narrow it down right now, I’d say we didn’t play well enough on third down. We had turnovers and they had zero,” he said.

The last-second loss to the Titans was the latest chapter in the Niners’ book, but it wasn’t an epilogue. The Niners remain in control of their own destiny, going forward with an 8-7 record and a solid chance at the playoffs. They remain in the sixth seed, currently maintaining a playoff spot, awaiting the next game against the Texans Jan. 2.

Stay tuned, faithful. This season is a nail-biter.

So? Here’s what we learned in Nashville, and what we should ponder as the Niners head down the path to the playoffs.

Jimmy Geez

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo continued his mercurial play, driving the team downfield at times and then throwing maddening interceptions to foil the plot.

Going into the game, the NFL intelligentsia had agreed Garoppolo was playing some of the best football of his career. And he was. They’d won five of six going into Thursday night. The Niners’ quarterback had compiled the NFL’s second-best quarterback rating over that stretch, trailing only the Packers’ Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers.

But, as has been the case at times in Jimmy G’s career, he threw two key picks against the Titans that proved the difference in a tight game. (He finished 26 of 35 for 322 yards, one TD and two interceptions.)

“Two turnovers cost you. But they’re not all just on him. That’s on everyone out there,” said Shanahan. “I’m frustrated. I thought we could’ve won this one.”

He clearly made some bad reads, especially looking for second and third options on routes, that led to mistakes.

Bottom line? The Niners will go as Jimmy goes. He likes to squeeze the ball into tight spots. Sometimes that doesn’t work.

“It’s a tough one. It is. A game like that. A short week. … It’s a tough one, but you gotta take your lumps and move on from it,” said Garoppolo. “We just didn’t do enough tonight.”

Super Samuel

What’s not debatable? Deebo Samuel is the heart and soul of the 49ers. The team’s ace receiver continued to confound opposing defenses, catching nine balls for 159 yards en route to another stellar performance against the Titans, which included an additional 32 yards on the ground.

At this point, we can all agree we haven’t seen this version of football player before. No NFL player has ever, in one season, scored five touchdowns, by land and by air.

“It was kind of frustrating. But, you know, you have to put that behind you,” said Samuel. “We kinda fell short.”

The Niners’ flexible superstar has emerged as something special. Shanahan has displayed true wizardry, taking advantage of this talent. Deebo has thrived under the master. This creative connection remains the key to San Francisco’s success this season.

Feed Deebo. He’s hungry. And he gets it done.

Stretch run stress

The Niners have two games left, at home against the Texans followed by a road game against the Rams on Jan. 9.

On paper, San Francisco could win both those games. But here we are. Asking the same questions we’ve pondered all season. Can the Niners play mistake-free offense, supported by strong defense? Or will they self-destruct with poor decisions on the offensive side and shoddy special teams play?

This is why we play the games people. Feels to me the Niners get a break for falling short in Tennessee. They were playing a short week, on the road, against a solid team that features good coaching and solid defense.

Going forward? They’ll have a regular week schedule, playing both in decent weather. One at home. One on the road.

In a league that’s tilting toward the middle, the Niners still have a fantastic chance to reach the postseason. Get healthy. Bring back running back Elijah Mitchell. Convince Garoppolo that this is his last chance at greatness in Northern California. Turn defensive end Nick Bosa loose.

The team’s quarterback of the future, Trey Lance, is coming soon. But not just yet. Now’s the time, Jimmy. Leave on a high note.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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