NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jimmy Garoppolo was playing as well as any quarterback in the league during the second half of the season.
His play was a big reason the 49ers were among the hottest teams in the NFL.
On Thursday night, his performance was a big reason for the team’s 20-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Garoppolo threw two interceptions and made several other costly misplays that opened the door for the Titans to come back from a 10-point halftime deficit.
Garoppolo finished with 25 completions in 34 attempts for 306 yards with one touchdown to go along with his two interceptions, but his costly mistakes were too much to overcome.
The 49ers breezed down the field to open the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
On their next possession, they appeared ready to take a two-touchdown lead, but Garoppolo threw an interception in the end zone.
On the next drive, Garoppolo badly overthrew a wide-open Kyle Juszczyk that could have/should have gone for a 40-yard touchdown. The 49ers ended up kicking a field goal to end that drive.
At the end of the half, coach Kyle Shanahan decided to run out the clock from their own 30 rather than risk a turnover by trying to get into field-goal position.
What Shanahan wanted to avoid at the end of the second quarter happened at the beginning of the third quarter. Garoppolo did not see a defender when trying to get the ball to Deebo Samuel. That resulted in his second interception of the game.
The Titans took advantage of that short field to score the game-tying touchdown and continue its momentum into a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo led the 49ers on a 95-yard drive to tie the game at 17, connecting with Brandon Aiyuk for a game-tying touchdown.
But the Titans stormed back and won the game on a 44-yard field goal by Randy Bulluck with four seconds left.
Here are three takeaways from the 49ers’ Week 16 game against the Titans:
Failing to deliver knockout blow
The 49ers took control early but could not deliver the early knockout blow, as Garoppolo provided the Titans with too many chances.
The 49ers appeared to be in control in the first half, but it took the Titans less than eight minutes of the third quarter to pull even.
Leading 7-0 in the first quarter, the 49ers drove all the way from their own 20-yard line to the Tennessee 8.
On a second-and-goal play, Garoppolo tried to squeeze his pass into tight end George Kittle, who was blanketed by Titans cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins, a 10-year pro formerly known as Janoris Jenkins.
Jenkins made the interception in the end zone to thwart the 49ers’ chance of going up by two scores.
The 49ers extended their lead to 10-0 on their next possessions with Robbie Gould’s 48-yard field goal.
Garoppolo’s second interception of the game — this one by safety Amani Hooker on a pass intended for Deebo Samuel — gave the Titans a short field. Tennessee drove 18 yards on four plays for the tying touchdown.
Conundrum of the 49ers’ pass defense
It’s about time we face the fact the 49ers’ pass defense might just be one of the strengths of the team. Or is it one of the weaknesses?
The 49ers do not have the two starting cornerbacks they had to start the season, so they have had to make due with Josh Norman and, in recent games, rookie Ambry Thomas.
The first half was a masterpiece for the 49ers — although Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 10 of 13 pass attempts. Those 10 completions totaled just 40 yards. Tennessee had just 32 yards of net passing after factoring in Samson Ebukam’s sack.
The 49ers’ pass rush seemed to intimidate the Tennessee offensive coordinator Todd Downing into throwing short or not throwing at all on third downs.
The Titans’ first drive of the game ended when Jeremy McNichols gained no yards on a third-and-15 run play. On their final possession of the first half, Tannehill’s pass to A.J. Brown was completed for no gain on a third-and-20 play.
The 49ers entered the game with the league’s seventh-ranked pass defense, allowing just 213.2 yards passing per game.
Thomas held up in the first half, as he prevented a touchdown with a breakup of a deep pass intended for Brown.
But all that changed in the third quarter, as Tannehill and the Titans' offense carved up the 49ers' defense. Tannehill found Brown for a 42-yard gain against Thomas on a third-and-23 play.
And the Titans took a 17-10 lead on Tannehill’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Brown against Norman.
Tannehill finished the night with 22 completions in 29 attempts for 209 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was especially effective on third downs.
The bottom line . . .
This late in the season, every game has greater playoff significance.
The difference between win and loss for the 49ers on Thursday night represented a 25-percentage point swing in their chances of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
The 49ers entered the Week 16 slate of games in the No. 6 slot in the NFC playoffs. The Los Angeles Rams hold the No. 5 spot with a 10-4 record. The Rams play at the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
The 49ers knew going into the game that a victory over the Titans would have given them a 95-percent chance of earning a postseason berth, while a loss would have dropped them to 70 percent.
The 49ers wrap up the season at home in Week 17 against the Houston Texans, then on the road against the Rams on Sunday, Jan. 9.