Many of the Tennessee Titans had labeled Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers as a “must win” heading into the bye week.
After consecutive losses without Jake Locker, the Titans got their starting quarterback Sunday with plans of getting back on the winning track and righting a season that had somehow derailed.
Instead, the Titans jumped the tracks completely on Sunday with their worst performance of the year, falling 31-17 to the 49ers in a game not nearly as close as that score indicates.
Tennessee's offense was largely inept for three quarters, until finally breaking through with 17 fourth-quarter points as Locker fired a pair of late touchdowns in garbage time.
The defense, which had been propping up the Titans for a good part of the season, buckled on Sunday, allowing Colin Kaeperick and Frank Gore to provide a one-two rushing punch that combined for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
But the worst mistakes in the Titans' lackluster performance came on special teams, where Darius Reynaud muffed a punt with Tennessee still having a faint pulse, trailing 24-10 and about to get the football back with 6:16 to play. Instead, the miscue cost the Titans seven more points when Kaseem Osgood recovered the ball in the end zone for a 49ers touchdown and a 31-10 advantage.
“In all three phases, we didn't do what it took to win, and obviously with the score, you can see that,” linebacker Colin McCarthy said.
Safety Bernard Pollard said the Titans simply beat themselves Sunday with their many mistakes, as two turnovers, 100 yards on 10 penalties and allowing 8-of-16 third down conversions attest to.
“We talk about having an identity, but we can't have an identity by going out there and fricking beating ourselves,” Pollard said.
Instead of rallying around Locker, who was returning from hip and knee injuries after two weeks on the shelf, the Titans came out flat. After punting on the opening series, the Titans surrendered a field goal on the Niners' first drive as Phil Dawson connected from 44 yards away.
That was just the beginning for the 49ers, who continued to pound away at the Titans with two second-quarter touchdowns, one on Kaepernick's 20-yard run off a bootleg play that Tennessee never figured out, and later on Frank Gore's 1-yard plunge go push the lead to 17-0.
“Shame on us for two weeks in a row. That's exactly the same offense we faced last week. We did a good job of it in Seattle; we did a good job getting off the field on third down,” Pollard said. “Today third down killed us, allowing the quarterback to scramble. When you're playing teams like this, you're not gonna get sacks. These quarterbacks are just too elusive. We just didn't do a good job as a team. The thing that continues to show up and creep its little head, we give them points. We're giving teams points by mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes today.”
After that, the 49ers were never really challenged as the Titans offense was unable to mount much of a comeback in the third quarter.
Finally, in the fourth quarter, Tennessee got on the scoreboard with Rob Bironas' 31-yard field goal. Later, Locker hit Chris Johnson with a screen pass that went 66 yards for a TD, and finally Locker fired a 26-yard touchdown to Delanie Walker with 3:17 to play – another too little, too late score that came after Reynaud's killer turnover.
Locker, who was 25 of 41 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, said his frustrations were about the mistakes that stalled out too many drives on Sunday early in the game.
“I think anytime as an offense, when you are beating yourselves, it's very frustrating because you are going out, you're looking at the stuff that you've run and saying, 'Well, this worked. We were successful on it,'” Locker said. “We were moving the ball, but we're shooting ourselves in the foot and putting ourselves behind the chains, which is tough.”
The Titans now head into their bye week on a three-game losing streak, knowing that perhaps the best thing in their favor is playing in the AFC South where only the Indianapolis Colts are over .500.
“We're 3-4, and we have to decide how we're gonna handle that,” Coach Mike Munchak said. “We're not even at the halfway point yet. … This season is a long journey, and 3-4 is not where we' hoped we'd be.”