SANTA CLARA – How can the 49ers, with last place secured for a third straight season, be favored to win Sunday against the AFC’s current No. 5 playoff seed? Because:
(a) Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team has won 3 of 4 since an 0-9 start.
(b) Jimmy Garoppolo is 2-0 as their starting heartthrob, er, quarterback.
(c) The Tennessee Titans are coming off their second loss in four games.
(d) Levi’s Stadium might actually be loud – in favor of the home team.
If a two-game win streak isn’t enough, Garoppolo’s first home start should attract 49ers fans and actually keep them in their seats. It could make for the most celebrated win ever at Levi’s Stadium, albeit among a small sample size (10 wins, 30 home games).
"I do think there has been some good things in our stadium," Shanahan said, "but considering how our record has been here this year and the last few years, obviously we’ve got to give them a little bit more to be entertained and have reasons to get excited and get there early and have their energy throughout four quarters."
The forecast: 66 degrees, sunshine, and, hey, free blankets for everyone in case it gets cold.
The 49ers haven’t won back-to-back home games in a season since 2014, games Nos. 2 and 3 at Levi’s Stadium. Once the Seattle Seahawks routed them on Thanksgiving night 2014, the franchise nosedived out of contention.
Now seemingly on the rise, the 49ers can impact the playoff hopes of their final three opponents: the Titans (8-5), the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) and the Los Angeles Rams (9-4).
"I’d say every week is a challenge because it’s the NFL, but these next three are really good," center Daniel Kilgore said.
Added Shanahan: ďI don’t see why our team can’t treat these three games like we’re playing for our playoff lives, too. It’s going to be a huge challenge. They’re going to feel an intensity from these teams, especially Tennessee on Sunday, that’s more intense than they’ve felt from other teams throughout this year.Ē
Delanie Walker, an ex-49ers tight end who’s flourished with the Titans since 2013, isn’t surprised the 49ers are 2-point favorites by Vegas oddsmakers.
"Every game we’ve done played so far, the other team has been the favorite, so that’s normal," Walker said.
Actually, that’s not true. The Titans have been underdogs only one other game this season, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were favored by 7 and won 40-17 last month, according to ProFootballReference.com.
But Walker basically is channeling athletes’ typical us-against-the-world mentality.
"I expect that from the league and the networks: they downplay the Titans. So that’s nothing I’m not used to," Walker added. "But, again, the 49ers are hot so I understand why they’re saying they’re playing good."
Garoppolo could join Y.A. Tittle (1951-52) as the only 49ers quarterbacks to win their first three starts for the franchise; Garoppolo won his first two NFL starts last season with the New England Patriots.
As Garoppolo readied for his first home start, he grappled with the correct moniker of the 49ers fan base. So, is it the "Faithful," "Empire," "Nation" or "Garoppolopians?"
" ‘The Faithful,’ I found out," Garoppolo said. "Got some heat for saying ‘49ers Nation’ (last Sunday). But, ‘The Faithful,’ they’re an awesome fan base. It’ll be fun to get in front of them this Sunday."
Garoppolo threw for more yards (627) than any other 49ers quarterback making their first two starts, and he needs only 141 this week for the most through three games, surpassing Blaine Gabbert’s 2015 mark.
Garoppolo’s counterpart this game, the Titans’ Marcus Mariota, is more accomplished than those he outdueled the past two games, the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky and the Texans’ Tom Savage and T.J. Yates.
Mariota is having among the league’s more sub-par seasons: 10 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions, with eight interceptions coming in the past four games. The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2015, his 93.8 passer rating ranked sixth in NFL history for a quarterback through two seasons.
Leg injuries also might hinder Mariota’s mobility, which was on display at Levi’s Stadium when he ran for three touchdowns in Oregon’s Pac-12 Championship win over Arizona in 2014.
DeForest Buckner was an Oregon teammate of Mariota’s on that team, and he’ll be looking to sack his fellow Hawaiian native for the first time.
"You make a mistake and he’ll take advantage of it. I saw it at Oregon," Buckner said. "Even in the zone-read game, if guys don’t do their job on the edge and chase that dive, he’ll make you pay with his feet."
Mariota has five rushing touchdowns this season, as do each of the Titans running backs in Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray.
Don’t rule out the 49ers running backs from upstaging everyone. Carlos Hyde averaged 5.6 yards per carry last game (78 yards) and scored his first touchdown in seven games. Understudy Matt Breida is seeing more action, too, so he could be ready to break out.
The Titans, after practicing all week at Arizona State in the wake of last Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, are in desperate pursuit of the AFC South title.
"We’re really focusing in on getting back on track, and sorry to say this but the 49ers are standing in the way," Walker said.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of the 49ers recent revival: "When you’ve got the ball and you can control it, and your defense has been playing good football, it’s just coming together. They’ve won close games and found a way to win."
But can they win against a playoff-caliber opponent, and can they do so at a place that resembles a home-field advantage rather than a red-clad ghost-town?
"Let’s fill it up this Sunday and get the place cranked up?" general manager John Lynch appealed on Twitter this week.