Look out below
At 2-9, the 49ers still are marginally ahead of the Houston Texans, who blew a 24-3 halftime lead – not to mention a 10-point lead with less than a minute to play in regulation – to lose at home against the St. Louis Rams in overtime and keep their stranglehold on the league's worst record at 1-10. But with the way the Niners regressed Sunday in the Music City, it appears they are very capable of not winning another game the rest of the way, including their Jan. 1 season finale against the Texans that is looking more and more like it will decide who'll be picking first in the Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush sweepstakes in next year's college lottery. To the loser goes the spoils. After two weeks of incremental progress, the 49ers looked like perpetual losers again during a haggard, four-turnover performance in which San Francisco went backwards after taking a 14-9 lead into the locker room at intermission. "I felt good at halftime," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "But things changed." Did they ever. After a game San Francisco defense stuffed Tennessee on a three-and-out to begin the second half, rookie Otis Amey didn't get out of the way of a short punt and allowed the ball to bounce off him for a muff that was recovered by the Titans. And so the landslide began that would send the 49ers to their fourth consecutive defeat while snapping Tennessee's five-game losing slide. Instead of having the momentum and the ball near midfield, the 49ers found themselves trailing on the scoreboard 10 seconds later after quarterback Steve McNair avoided the rush and dumped off a pass to halfback Chris Brown in the left flat. Breaking a lame tackle attempt by Julian Peterson, Brown strolled into the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown reception that gave Tennessee the lead for good. "We played very good in the first half, and in the third quarter, we all knew what we had to do," said Peterson, who finished with 10 tackles. "We felt like if we continued to play well, the game could be ours. But then they got a couple of big, explosive plays that really put the nail in the coffin. That was a big momentum switch, and I should have made a tackle on the sideline that was big. That cost us a lot of momentum right there." The momentum now belonged completely to Tennesse, and it remained there well into the fourth quarter. After another three-and-out by the San Francisco offense – which had eight of those on the day, including five in a row at one point – the Titans struck again on their first offensive play as McNair hit Roydell Williams for a 51-yard touchdown pass. Williams burned cornerback Bruce Thornton on the play, then Thornton missed a tackle attempt inside the10-yard line. McNair wasn't done. He culminated an eight-play, 68-yard scoring drive on Tennessee's next possession with a 4-yard scoring pass to tight end Erron Kinney. In the space of 10 minutes, the Titans had turned a five-point deficit into a 30-14 advantage. McNair picked the 49ers apart while the Titans were assuming command, completing five of seven passes for 142 yards in the third quarter alone. The 2003 NFL MVP finished with his best game in more than two years, throwing for a season-high 343 yards and compiling a 97.9 passer rating. The Titans became the fifth team to pass for more than 300 yards against the 49ers this season. Tennessee rolled to a season-high 461 yards with 253 of them coming after halftime. "The defense was playing very well, but in the second half we came out and the explosive passes got us in trouble," Nolan said. "It gave us a couple of quick scores back-to-back and those 14 points really put us in a hole." With their offense reverting back to its floundering patterns of yore, it was a hole from which San Francisco could not emerge. The 49ers had showed some offensive life in the first half that resulted in back-to-back drives of 54 and 80 yards. But after reaching halftime with 145 yards of offense, the Niners produced just 26 yards on their first six drives of the second half to allow the Titans to take control. The 49ers also botched some prime offensive opportunities in the first half when Jose Cortez – kicking in place of injured Joe Nedney – missed a routine 34-yard field goal at the end of the early 54-yard drive. Then, with the 49ers leading 7-6 late in the second quarter, Kevan Barlow broke loose on a spectacular 75-yard touchdown run. But it was too good to be true. Tackle Kwame Harris was called for a holding penalty behind the play to negate Barlow's great run. On the next play, Ken Dorsey hit rookie tight end Billy Bajema in the chest with a pass. But Bajema allowed it to bounce off his pads and into the hands of linebacker Keith Bulluck to set up Rob Bironas' third field goal to put the Titans ahead. "That Barlow touchdown pretty much gave us the edge we needed," said 49ers tight end Terry Jones, who had three receptions. "But we had another bonehead mistake and messed up and had it called back. That swung the whole crowd and the momentum in their favor." The 49ers got it back before halftime when Shawntae Spencer intercepted a McNair pass and returned it 61 yards down the right sideline with 27 seconds remaining before halftime to give San Francisco the lead at intermission. But that lead was a mirage. The 49ers couldn't overcome a bad Tennessee team the rest of the way and, particularly, they couldn't overcome themselves. That's why the Niners are scraping at the bottom of the NFL again today, falling fast to catch any team that might still be considered below them.
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