By Jack Bantock, CNN
The Tennessee Titans needed a hero and A.J. Brown answered the call.
The wide receiver exploded in his first game back from injury to help fire the AFC South leaders to a vital 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday.
With one win in four and missing a multitude of players through injury, the Titans ran out in Nashville already flirting with a dramatic late-season collapse.
By half time, they looked ready to propose — managing just 55 yards offensively and trailing 10-0 in a fourth-straight scoreless quarter courtesy of 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr.’s touchdown and a Robbie Gould field goal.
Randy Bullock’s field goal ensured the Titans would not go five quarters without a point, before Amani Hooker picked 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s wayward pass to catalyze a second-half comeback.
Garoppolo went 26-for-35 for 322 yards and a touchdown pass — eclipsing opposing signal caller Ryan Tannehill’s 209 passing yards — but was picked and sacked two times apiece, his second interception by Hooker culminating in a D’Onta Foreman touchdown that leveled the scores heading into the fourth quarter.
‘Keep carrying us’
Enter Brown — the wide receiver, back from injury after three games out, catching Tannehill’s first touchdown pass since week 12 in the end zone to put the Titans ahead for the first time in the game.
The 24-year-old finished the match having received for 145 yards from a career-high 11 receptions, eight of which came on third downs — the most by any player in the last 30 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
“I feel very grateful to just play football again,” Brown told reporters after the game. “It was tough for me to watch them — I really feel like this is my purpose of living.
“[My teammates] kept saying welcome back in the middle of the game. Keep going, keep going. Keep carrying us, keep carrying us.”
Brown’s stellar performance was mimicked by 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel — who dazzled with nine receptions for 159 yards.
Samuel’s 56-yard run drove the 49ers to within sight of the end zone late in the fourth, Brandon Aiyuk catching Garoppolo’s short pass to level the scores and tee up a grandstand finish.
With just over a minute remaining, Tannehill scrambled through the middle with a 23-yard run to drive his team towards field goal range — Bullock making no mistake with his 44-yard kick to clinch victory with seconds remaining, notwithstanding an admirable final play lateral attempt by the 49ers.
Back from the dead
The win lifts the Titans to 10-5 with just the Miami Dolphins (7-7) and the Houston Texans (3-11) left to face, and will clinch their second-straight AFC South triumph should the Indianapolis Colts lose to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
After all the crisis talk during the week, life suddenly looks rosy again for coach Mike Vrabel.
“The funeral for the Titans was supposed to be yesterday or today, but we’re not dead yet,” Vrabel told reporters after the game.
“You’ve got to be willing to take some shots and willing to bleed and be able to taste it and come back swinging.”
Defeat strikes a blow to the 49ers’ playoff ambitions, but they will have the opportunity to correct course against the struggling Texans on January 2 before a final game showdown with the Los Angeles Rams (10-4).
Their pain was the Dallas Cowboys’ (10-4) gain — who clinched their first playoff spot in three years courtesy of the 49ers defeat.
The Cowboys are currently the number two seed in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers (11-3), and can take the NFC East title with victory over the Washington Football Team on December 27.
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