With their season at a crossroads, the Titans faced a third and two at the 49ers 32-yard line trailing by two in the closing minutes Sunday. They played it safe, electing to run instead of putting it in the hands of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and it backfired. DeMarco Murray was stuffed and the Titans settled for a field goal, leaving 1:07 left on the clock for the 49ers to answer and win the game.
What happened from there may change the course of two franchises.
Jimmy Garoppolo fired three straight completions that netted 45 yards, moving the 49ers into field goal range, setting up Robbie Gould's sixth field goal of the day, a 45-yarder that gave San Francisco a 25-23 win. It means Garoppolo is 3-0 as the Niners' starter since being acquired last month, and means they may have finally found their next great franchise quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Titans leave Northern California with more questions than answers following a second straight loss against a NFC West team that will not make the playoffs.
Mariota played well, completing 23-33 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns, but with the game, and perhaps the season, on the line the Titans called for a handoff on that critical third and two. Mariota says he even suggested the call, though he admitted he probably should've checked out of the play into a pass when he saw the 49ers defense load the box against the run.
The play call was conservative and that doesn't win very often in the NFL. The Titans willingness to settle for a Ryan Succop field goal and hope their defense could stop Garoppolo and the Niners cost them the game and potentially the team's first playoff appearance since 2008.
The NFL is a quarterback driven league. The best teams have the best quarterbacks and put it in their hands when it matters the most.
So why didn't the Titans?
This is a team that prides itself on it's smash mouth identity. They believe they can, and probably should, be able to pick up two yards against anybody no matter the situation. That philosophy has served Mike Mularkey and the Titans well in their two year turnaround. But when the chips are down is that a style that will win you games week in and week out nowadays?
Plus, with the game on the line, don't you want the ball in the hands of your best player? Or has Mariota's recent struggles diminished their belief that he is their best player?
But I won't pin this all on coaching, either.
Let's say they thought the run call was their best option there. After all, Mariota seemed to agree. But why didn't he switch out of the play when he saw how the 49ers lined up? Can you imagine Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees staring at a loaded box and single coverage and not audibling to something that would put the game on their shoulders?
And that's how it should be. As much as Mariota's humble, team first demeanor is endearing, he has to want that moment to be a star quarterback in this league.
For whatever the reason, the the ball was not in Mariota's hands on what amounts to this season's most important play, in essence putting the Titans' fate in the hands of the game's other quarterback. Garoppolo and the 49ers made them pay and now the Titans' playoff hopes are in peril.
After leaving Nashville 10 days ago with an 8-4 record and in first place in the AFC South, the Titans now take the long flight back home after two losses that all but end their division title chances and means they'll have to win at least one of their final two games to have a chance to make the playoffs.
Consider the fact those two games come against two teams that sit at 10-4 in the Rams and Jaguars and things are looking ominous. As defensive tackle Jurrell Casey described the situation Sunday evening, "this is all or nothing."
If the Titans can't find a way to get into the playoffs they'll have no one to blame but themselves. On Sunday they lost a must have game when they put the ball in the hands of the other team's quarterback and not their own.
And in this league, that is almost always a losing proposition.