49ers flop at finish of demoralizing defeat

That old sinking feeling swallowed Candlestick Park again Sunday as it all fell apart for the 49ers in a must-win game against the one-win Tennessee Titans. In a flopping finish that suggests they're not ready to be contenders, the Niners suffered a turnover-laden meltdown in the final eight minutes of a 34-27 defeat that saddles them with a four-game losing streak at the midpoint of the season.

Allowing the Titans to hang around into the fourth quarter, the 49ers saw their 17-10 halftime lead vanish before two late Alex Smith interceptions helped Tennessee score 17 points in a span of 4:20 in the final seven minutes to leave town with an upset victory.

In their latest failure to close out a game in which they had a fourth-quarter lead, coach Mike Singletary was visibly perturbed by the method and manner in which his team fell to 3-5 at midseason. The 49ers dropped two games behind defending champion Arizona in the NFC West and must win at least five of their remaining eight games to avoid a seventh consecutive losing season.

"Obviously, there's not a whole lot to say about that game," Singletary said. "It's obvious as to what happened. We have a formula in how we win games, and the number one thing is we can't turn the ball over. That's the thing that basically killed us today. We can win games if we don't kill ourselves."

The 49ers killed themselves with four turnovers, all of them by Smith, who had three interceptions and lost one of his two fumbles.

The Titans scored 24 points off the turnovers, but it was Smith's final two interceptions that were the killers.

Tennessee had just gone ahead for the first time since early in the second quarter on Chris Johnson's 2-yard touchdown run with 7:11 to play, giving the Titans a 24-20 lead.

Two plays later, Chris Hope rolled up from safety to make a diving interception in front of 49ers receiver Josh Morgan at the San Francisco 32-yard line. The Titans, working critical time off the clock, turned that into a 28-yard Rob Bironas field goal for a 27-20 lead with 3:09 to play.

Then came the coup de grace.

On San Francisco's next offensive play, Smith again tried to find Morgan to jump-start the drive. Instead, safety Vincent Fuller tipped the ball away from Morgan and into the waiting hands of cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who returned the interception 39 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

Endings don't get much uglier than that for a team scrapping to get back to .500 and remain in playoff contention.

"It's already hard enough to win in this league without turnovers at the end of the game," Morgan said. "The turnovers just made it harder. It's nobody's fault. They get paid to make plays, too. They made the plays when it counted in the fourth quarter."

Smith, who made a tremendous play on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jason Hill that gave San Francisco its 17-10 halftime lead, wore a hangdog expression after the game, the kind that became typical of Smith earlier in his career.

By the end of the game, as Smith was leading the 49ers down the field to a touchdown that narrowed the margin to 34-27 with 39 seconds to play, the home fans were booing the beleaguered former No. 1 overall draft pick.

But Smith wasn't really all that bad. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns to Hill as the 49ers made down-field passing a bigger part of their attack.

Smith found tight end Vernon Davis for career-high totals of 10 receptions for 102 yards and guided the offense to 358 total yards, including five sustained drives of 66 net yards or more.

But the two costly interceptions at the end were the difference.

"I'm the guy back there making the decisions, and when you look at the three picks and the one fumble when I was going to throw, it's tough to overcome," Smith said. "Obviously, there's some things I'd like to have over."

The 49ers would like to have a do-over for the fourth quarter, because this was a game they appeared on their way to winning.

But they couldn't punch the ball in the end zone after working almost 10 minutes off the clock on a 15-play, 66-yard drive midway through the second half that ended with Joe Nedney's 25-yard field goal.

That put the 49ers ahead 20-17 with 10:55 remaining, but they quickly lost control of the game.

On the second play of the ensuing Tennessee possession, Johnson exploded over the left side for an 81-yard touchdown run. That run was later cut in half when replays after a San Francisco challenge showed that Johnson had barely stepped out of bounds at the San Francisco 40-yard line.

But the Titans were able to get in the end zone six plays later anyway as Johnson took a pitch from quarterback Vince Young and scored from inches out on fourth-and-goal.

Linebacker Parys Haralson had Johnson in his grasp back at the 6-yard line for a loss that would have preserved San Francisco's lead. But Johnson, like he had burned the 49ers much of the day, was able to slip away from Haralson and charge into the end zone to give the Titans a lead they never would relinqish.

"I thought he was closer to the sideline than he was, and I left my feet," Haralson said. "That's just a play I have to make."

There were a lot of 49ers not making plays when it counted. Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher, finished with 135 yards on 25 carries to become the first player to rush for 100 yards against the 49ers this season. San Francisco entered the game with the NFL's second-ranked run defense.

Beginning with Johnson's scoring run, it was the Titans making the plays when it counted in the game's decisive final minutes.

"We have to finish games," Singletary said. "It's as simple as that. If we take away the stupid stuff where we're killing ourselves, we got a chance. But it comes down to finishing football games, and that's the thing we're not doing."

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