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A.J. Brown key to Titans win over 49ers

A.J. Brown
Posted at 9:22 AM, Dec 24, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It was 50 minutes before the Titans kicked off against the 49ers on Thursday Night Football and there A.J. Brown was bouncing around the field during warmups, back after missing three games due to injury and looking to give a struggling offense a spark.

"I was just grateful to be back and able to play again," Brown said later. "I feel this is my purpose in life, to play football."

Over the next three and a half hours, Brown looked once again like one of the best wide receivers on the planet, and it was the Titans that were grateful to see No. 11 back on the field, leading them to them to a huge 20-17 come from behind win hours after he was activated off injured reserve.

Of course it would figure with this Titans team that the game in which Brown returned would also be the day they were forced to play without the left side of their offensive line. Taylor Lewan sat with a bad back, Rodger Saffold was in COVID quarantine, and expected left tackle replacement Kendall Lamm tested positive early on Thursday, forcing rookie Dillon Radunz into action at left tackle.

Radunz filled in admirably, bolstered by an offensive scheme that spent the night in max protect, holding Pro Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa without a sack. But it was slow rolling early for the Titans offense, which managed just 12 yards in the first quarter and no points in the first half.

Meanwhile the red-hot 49ers, winners of five of six, used motions and misdirections to get the Titans defense on their heels early. Deebo Samuel and company racking up 200 yards of offense in the first half on the way to a 10-0 lead that would've been larger if not for a Jackrabbit Jenkins interception in the end zone on an ill-advised pass from Jimmy Garoppolo in the direction of George Kittle.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel called the play big because "we were kind of flatlining at that moment."

At the half the Titans talked about making it a game in the fourth quarter, where they have been as good as anyone over the last four years at finding ways to close teams out. What followed over the next 30 minutes was nearly as stunning of a reversal as what happened during Tennessee's meltdown in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The offense drove for a field goal on the opening possession of the second half, its first points in five quarters dating back to that loss against the Steelers. Then Amani Hooker grabbed an errant Garoppolo pass over the middle, intended for Samuel, and returned it to the 18-yard line. A defense that did not force a single turnover in three of the last four games, all losses, had its second of the night and the Titans had life.

A few plays later D'Onta Foreman plowed in from the four and the game was tied.

The defense continued to buckle down, holding the 49ers to just seven second half points. They're allowing fewer than 20 points per game over the last nine contests.

But you have to be able to score points to win, and it was Brown's reappearance that ignited the offense and spearheaded the comeback. The third-year receiver had 11 catches for a whopping 145 yards. Eight of those receptions came on third down, the most of any receiver in a single game since they began keeping the stat in 1978, as the Titans repeatedly converted third and long distance situations to keep drives alive.

Take for example the third and 22 late in the third quarter in which the Titans seemed destined for a punt. Ryan Tannehill's hard count managed to get the 49ers to jump early at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a free play. Tannehill then wisely took a chance, lobbing a jump ball downfield in the direction of Brown, who fought off Jimmie Ward and win the football for a 42-yard gain and a first down.

"He's exactly what you want in a receiver," Tannehill said after the game.

Later on the drive with the Titans facing third and 12, Tannehill was flushed from the pocket, but was able to find Brown for a first down. Brown again had to break free from the physical Ward, coming into view for Tannehill, then bouncing off a tackler for the first down. On the next play Tannehill made a big boy throw to Brown for an 18-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead.

Tannehill has been criticized for his mistake-prone play with a rotating supporting cast this season, but was in complete control Thursday, seemingly growing in confidence with each throw in Brown's direction. He drove the Titans 49 yards after the 49ers tied it with 2:25 to play, picking up 23 critical yards on a well-timed scramble that took the ball down to the San Francisco 31.

After a run moved the ball to the right hash, Randy Bullock drilled a 44-yard field goal, on the 17-year anniversary of his father's death, with :04 left.

We've long since learned not to count the Titans out, and Thursday night was another coaching masterpiece from Vrabel and his staff, who improved to 19-15 outright as underdogs since coming to Tennessee in 2018 and seem to be at their best when no one gives them a chance.

But it was the return of Brown that changed the calculus for this team moving forward. The Titans magic number to repeat as AFC South champions is now just one, a gift that could be wrapped and under the tree as soon as Christmas night it the Colts lose in Arizona. The no. 1 seed in the AFC is also back on the table.

More importantly, the presence of Brown and the hopeful return of two-time NFL rushing Derrick Henry coupled with what has become an increasingly-stingy defense should give the Titans a chance to do something special in the playoffs.

"They’re all amazing," Vrabel said after the game when asked if the circumstances of this win made it any more satisfying. "But I think the circumstances of a short week, being down, being down some bodies against a really good football team, I mean, we’ll figure out where they have us after this week. I mean, you know we had the funeral for the Titans. You know it was yesterday or today. But we’re not dead yet.”