49ers’ 5 keys to beating Titans: Nick Bosa can make sweet music in Nashville

NASHVILLE — This week’s almost daily dose of NFL action resumes tonight, with the 49ers and Tennessee Titans getting the Music City stage to themselves.

The 49ers (8-6) offer the more compelling storylines, and they’ll be re-introduced to the nation as red-hot playoff contenders.

After mourning their Super Bowl defeat for 1 ½ seasons, the 49ers are enjoying a renaissance, winning five of their past six games. That has them sixth among the NFC’s seven potential playoff seeds, with three games to go.

Beating the AFC South-leading Titans (9-5) would vault the 49ers’ playoff chances to 94 percent, as opposed to a loss dumping them from their current 79 percent to 64 percent, according to data projections by FiveThirtyEight.com.

This is the 49ers’ first trip to Nashville since 2013 – the first leg of a road trip that continued on to London – and it comes with the challenge of playing on just three days rest.

A non-conference game doesn’t carry the playoff-determining clout as a NFC game, but the 49ers want to stay hot. After this comes the home finale Jan. 2 against the Houston Texans before a potential Week 18 showdown for playoff seeding at the Los Angeles Rams.

Here are five ways the 49ers can win and bolster their shot at a second playoff berth in eight seasons:

1. BIG BOSA GAME

Nick Bosa has a career-high 15 sacks on his rebuilt knee. He received more Pro Bowl votes from fans than any other NFL defender. And now his comeback hits Nashville, where he was upon the 49ers drafting him No. 2 overall in 2019.

Bosa has the license to pick which side to line up, and he’s looked quite menacing at left defensive end. That is where he’d faceoff this game against San Jose State product David Quessenberry, who’s allowed a NFL-high 11 sacks (according to ProFootballFocus.com) and is battling a knee injury.

The Titans’ left side will be extremely inviting, as it misses three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan (back) and left guard Rodger Saffold (COVID reserve).

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked the second-most times of any quarterback (41), and that includes four in each of his past two games. There will be opportunities for Bosa and others, such as Arden Key (career-high five sacks), Samson Ebukam and interior starters Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones.

That pass rush is vital in helping the 49ers’ cornerback corps, where Dontae Johnson could start if rookie Ambry Thomas gets benched after his first two starts. The return of wide receiver A.J. Brown also could be problematic, and Julio Jones might play through a hamstring issue.

2. MORE JIMMY G MAGIC

New viewers will be curious how Jimmy Garoppolo has remained the 49ers’ undisputed quarterback. As general manager John Lynch put it this week: “He’s running our system exactly how way we want. What I love about Jimmy, he doesn’t care if we run it 40 times, throw it 40 times, he just wants to win.”

Garoppolo’s comeback over the Titans five years ago at Levi’s Stadium convinced the 49ers to keep him as their franchise QB. Now, four years later, he must keep winning to command a 2022 return, or he can keep raising his stock for an offseason trade while Trey Lance waits in the wings.

How has Garoppolo led the 49ers from a 3-5 eyesore into one of the NFC’s hottest playoff contenders? “Our offense has changed a lot since the beginning of the season,” he said after Sunday’s 31-13 rout of Atlanta. “… That’s what good teams do: you adapt as the season goes.”

Garoppolo looks sharper and less turnover-prone. Other offensive changes: George Kittle got healthy, Deebo Samuel emerged as a hybrid weapon, Brandon Aiyuk had a bye-week wake-up call, and the offensive line became more cohesive.

It’s never been all about Garoppolo when things go well. Things are going quite well, and he’s doing his part “exactly how we want.”

3. RUN DEFENSE NEEDED

Two-time NFL rushing king Derrick Henry (foot) exited on Halloween, but the Titans are still a run-oriented offense.

Tannehill touchdown passes the past six games: one, one, one, one, none, none.

The Titans have rushed for over 100 yards in four consecutive games, and they’ve eclipsed 200 yards in two of their past three. So, who’s doing that running?

D’Onta Foreman is coming on strong, but has one touchdown in 77 carries. Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNicnols are other threats, as is Tannehill, who’s run for seven touchdowns.

Fred Warner is coming off one of his best games, and a strong encore is needed while the linebacker corps still juggles with injuries to Azeez Al-Shaair (elbow) and Dre Greenlaw (groin).

4. BETTER SPECIAL TEAMS

Don’t fumble kickoff returns. Don’t muff punts. Don’t miss field goals. Don’t allow big returns. Don’t go short on kickoffs.

Sounds simple. It’s been anything but for the 49ers’ special teams this year. Any slip-up from here on out will be magnified as the playoff stakes increase.

The Titans’ Chester Rogers had a 55-yard return to set up their first touchdown last game. In contrast, JaMycal Hasty fumbled the 49ers’ opening kickoff return Sunday and botched the next one, and all that came a week after Travis Benjamin fumbled away a return in Cincinnati.

Mitch Wishnowsky’s kickoffs are so concerning that Robbie Gould’s 39-year-old leg might be summoned for that chore.

Gould, you may recall, kicked a winning field goal as time expired to beat the Titans in that Dec. 17, 2017 game at Levi’s Stadium.

5. KEEP ON TRUCKIN’

Everyone knows the 49ers’ offense revolves around their run game. Do you know how good the Titans’ run defense is? It’s No. 2 in the NFL, allowing 86.9 yards per game.

The Titans have allowed over 100 rushing yards just twice this season – 198 at Jacksonville, 105 at New England – and they’ve yielded only 43 rushing yards total the past two games against the Jaguars and the Steelers.

Deebo Samuel’s backfield cameos have helped the 49ers’ rushing attack whether injuries to rookie Elijah Mitchell, who is out a third straight game with a knee injury.

Jeff Wilson Jr. is coming off his strongest outing (110 yards, touchdown) since his May meniscus surgery, afterwhich he said; “I felt like myself. I felt like old Jeff, before all the (knee) stuff happened.”

The 49ers need ground success to stay out of third-and-long situations. In winning five of their last six, the 49ers’ offense has thrived on third downs (30-of-64) to keep alive drives. That’s a far cry from their past five losses: 2-or-14, 3-of-11, 1-of-11, 4-of-10, 3-of-10. The Steelers were just 2-of-11 in Sunday’s turnover-fueled win over the Titans.

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