Playoff positioning will be at a premium when the San Francisco 49ers head to Nashville in search of their third straight win and take on the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
The Titans lead the AFC South and enter Week 16 as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, while the 49ers find themselves third in the NFC West and the No. 6 seed in the NFC — remember: seven teams, not six, will make the playoffs this season — with three games to play.
While the 49ers' positioning may not be as high as that of their upcoming opponents, their recent momentum is certainly the more desired of the two. Not only have the 49ers been victorious in each of the last two weeks — with a three-point overtime win in Cincinnati in Week 14 and a 31-13 home win over Atlanta on Sunday — but they have also come out on top in their two most recent meetings against the Titans, including a 14-point win in Nashville in 2013 and a two-point home win in their last meeting in 2017.
Tennessee, meanwhile, returns home after dropping three of its last four games. The Titans' one positive in that span: a 20-0 win over Jacksonville in Week 14, picking off four interceptions from Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence en route to the shutout win. An encouraging key from an otherwise tough stretch: limiting turnovers. Tennessee's win over Jacksonville was not only its lone victory in their last four contests but also its only game of the four without a turnover. The three losses in that stretch? They featured 13 turnovers — six interceptions, seven fumbles lost (including one muffed punt against Houston) — with the 12 lost turnovers by the offense the most by any team between Weeks 11 and 15 this season.
Should the 49ers capitalize on those recent turnover-prone drives and secure any of their own, don't be surprised if San Francisco looks downfield to take advantage. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leads the NFL in both yards per pass attempt (8.5) and yards per completion (12.6), so keep an eye on the 49ers' vertical passing offense if they manage to make some momentum-shifting plays.
Thursday Night Football: San Francisco (8-6) at Tennessee (9-5)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 23, at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: 49ers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Nick Bosa's dominance continue?
Bosa has been a force to reckoned with along the 49ers' defensive front, wreaking all sorts of havoc behind the line of scrimmage for opposing offenses. Bosa enters Week 16 leading the NFL with 18 tackles for loss and sits tied just one spot below the league leaders in forced fumbles (four; three-way tie — including Bosa's brother Joey — for NFL lead with six) and sacks (15; NFL leader T.J. Watt: 17.5). Bosa has been on a tear as of late, collecting at least one sack in each of the last six games with eight total sacks in that span.
With those 15 sacks and three regular-season games still to play, Bosa is inching closer and closer to the franchise's single-season sack record of 19.5, posted by former linebacker Aldon Smith in 2012. His six-game streak with at least one sack is the longest in team history since Smith's seven-game streak in 2012, and his forced fumble against the Falcons — recovered by linebacker Fred Warner — was his fourth of the season (a single-season career-high) and sixth for his career. If he can keep that streak alive on Thursday night and continue to show how he's been among the league's best in 2021 — let alone his ability to rebound from missing all but two games in 2020 due to an ACL injury — then the 49ers will be well on their way to continuing their ascent up the standings.
2. Can the Titans manage two touchdowns?
Even against non-Bosa-led teams, the Titans have struggled to score points as of late. Tennessee has scored just 46 total points in its last three games, the sixth-lowest total of any NFL team over its last three games. The driving force for the Titans' results throughout the season has been remarkably simple: score two touchdowns. When scoring at least 14 points, the Titans are 9-1, with the one and only loss a 27-24 overtime loss at MetLife Stadium against the Jets in Week 4.
Tennessee has lost all four games when being held under that defining threshold, however, while — interestingly — scoring exactly 13 points in all four of those losses and never scoring fewer than 13 points in any regular-season game in 2021. Aside from Bosa, San Francisco's defense has been fairly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to scoring defense, allowing 22 points per game over the last three weeks and 22.4 points per game across the entire season. But where the 49ers have done quite well defensively is, incidentally, limiting opponents' early scoring in their respective home stadiums, as San Francisco has allowed just 9.4 first-half points per game on the road this season, the seventh-best mark in the league.
3. Who joins Garoppolo in the backfield … and can he produce?
In his second consecutive week handling the starting duties at running back in place of the injured Elijah Mitchell (knee, concussion), Jeff Wilson Jr. rushed 21 times for 110 yards and a touchdown — with two catches for nine more yards — in his first 100-yard game of the season. Wilson's totals could've been even more impactful had two of the 49ers' three rushing scores in the game not gone to Deebo Samuel and Kyle Juszczyk, who combined for just seven total carries in the win.
With the short week leading up to this week's matchup with Tennessee, San Francisco may once again elect to go with Wilson as the lead back if Mitchell is unable to recover and ramp up his readiness in time. The team has provided a reliable balance alongside Garoppolo, rushing for more than 126 yards per game in 2021 — the seventh-best mark in the league entering the final three weeks — and Wilson appears poised to keep that trending in the right direction should he be called upon once again.
The 49ers' offense has encountered plenty of injuries to key playmakers like Mitchell, Raheem Mostert, Richie James, and Trey Sermon as well as reliable anchors in the trenches like Mike McGlinchey. The next group of playmakers, however, has found ways to pick up where the starters left off and keep the 49ers in playoff contention, presenting a tough obstacle as the Titans try to build on their win over Jacksonville two weeks ago rather than sputter through the final weeks. The 49ers' ability to continue their strong play in recent weeks will be a key factor as to whether San Francisco or Tennessee will maintain its respective spot in the playoff picture and which of the two will need to right the ship quickly heading into the final couple of games.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Titans 20
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.