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For Bucs fans, 49ers-Titans would be an agonizing Super Bowl matchup

Rick Stroud | For a lot of reasons, including gifting wins to both teams and GMs who got away, this would be a bad match up for Tampa Bay.
A Super Bowl matchup involving former Buccaneers great John Lynch, left, and the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan Tannehill, right, and the Tennessee Titans could be tough to stomach for Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans. [Associated Press/DIRK SHADD | Times]
A Super Bowl matchup involving former Buccaneers great John Lynch, left, and the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan Tannehill, right, and the Tennessee Titans could be tough to stomach for Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans. [Associated Press/DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jan. 17
Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — Give me the Packers and the Chiefs. In the 100th anniversary season of the NFL, how about a historic replay of the first Super Bowl? (Sponsored by State Farm).

Give me the 49ers and the Chiefs. Let’s have a classic clash of the league’s No. 2 defense and Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

We’d even settle for Titans-Packers. Aaron Rodgers gets a crack at his second ring; Nashville is Mashville with running back Derrick Henry.

But if you are a Bucs fan, you don’t want to see the 49ers play the Titans in Super Bowl 54 in Miami next month.

Why?

Because the Bucs should have beaten both this season. Because they gave away both games. Because those losses were the Bucs’ most critical and sent both opponents on a path to Sunday’s conference championship games.

Related: The eye-opening lesson the Bucs should learn from the Titans’ surprising playoff run

Sure, it was only Week 1 when the Bucs fell to the 49ers 31-17, a score that was not indicative of how the game should’ve ended.

And it was merely Week 8 when the Titans evened their record at 4-4 with a 27-23 win over the Bucs.

But having to hear how the 49ers and Titans made it to the ultimate game would be a cruel reminder of what could’ve been for the Bucs.

You may think this is crazy. San Francisco went 13-3 as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and beat Minnesota in the division playoff game to reach the NFC title game against Green Bay.

The Titans went 10-6, then slew dragons at New England and Baltimore to set up the AFC Championship Game at Kansas City.

Meanwhile, the Bucs started 2-6, rallied to 7-7 and threw away the final two regular-season games against the Texans and Falcons to finish 7-9.

Not exactly parallel tracks.

But the NFL is a league of parity, where a play here or there can transform a season and history.

Let’s look at the 49ers.

Their general manager is John Lynch, the former Bucs safety who is a finalist again for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lynch is universally beloved in Tampa Bay and is in the team hall of fame for the Bucs and Broncos, having appeared in nine Pro Bowls.

Turns out, he’s pretty good at his current job, too. Three years ago, Lynch was part of Fox’s No. 2 NFL broadcast team as the color commentator. Upon hearing that Kyle Shanahan would take over as the 49ers coach and be paired with a general manager, Lynch contemplated a career change.

Lynch called Shanahan, which led to an interview for the 49ers’ general manager’s job. On Thursday he was named the NFL’s executive of the year by the Pro Football Writers Association.

He traded with the Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. After his quarterback blew out an ACL in 2018 and the Niners went 4-12, he drafted Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who was just named the football writers’ defensive rookie of the year. Lynch also signed in free agency former Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander, a big emotional leader for the San Francisco defense this season.

So after 12 seasons of watching their team fail to make the playoffs, Tampa Bay fans are left to wonder why Lynch didn’t call the Bucs if wanted to be a general manager so badly.

There is plenty of loser’s lament for Bucs fans surrounding the Titans.

Remember Jon Robinson, an assistant general manager with the Bucs and GM Jason Licht’s right-hand man when they drafted quarterback Jameis Winston No. 1 overall in 2015?

In his fourth season as the Titans’ GM, Robinson has drafted Henry, tackle Jack Conklin, receiver A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith. He signed former Bucs receiver Adam Humphries, guard Rodger Saffold and edge rusher Cameron Wake as free agents.

Robinson also made a shrewd decision in March. While the Bucs and Bruce Arians decided they didn’t want Winston looking over his shoulder, Robinson insisted that someone compete with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was taken one pick after Winston in 2015.

Robinson wanted an upgrade from veteran backup Blaine Gabbert, who wound up with the Bucs. So he traded for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. When Mariota got the Titans off to a 2-4 start, coach Mike Vrabel made the switch to Tannehill.

“On Oct. 15 we were 2-4. I was a bad coach, and this was a bad team,’’ Vrabel said. “We tried to believe in each other, we tried to improve, tried to prepare, trust each other, execute, and that’s what’s gotten us here.”

Then there is the matter of how those Bucs games against the 49ers and Titans went.

Related: Former Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken headed to Georgia

Bucs fans likely walked away from those contests believing — maybe knowing — their team was better.

From the first punt attempt by Bradley Pinion getting blocked to three interceptions by Winston — including a pair returned for touchdowns — the Bucs served notice that turnovers would be their undoing in 2019.

And yet, Tampa Bay trailed only 23-17 with 2:07 remaining and one timeout at its 23-yard line. But on first down, running back Dare Ogunbowale was unable to get out on a screen pass and Winston threw it anyway, directly into the arms of Ahkello Witherspoon, who returned it for a game-sealing touchdown. The Niners would finish sixth in the NFL in takeaways with 27.

The Titans were struggling when the Bucs arrived in Nashville on Oct. 27. Tannehill had just won his first game in relief of Mariota. But the Bucs made it easy for them.

Tampa Bay spotted Tennessee a 14-3 lead. The Titans’ first score came after Winston lost a fumble at the Titans 10 when center Ryan Jensen snapped the ball off the quarterback’s facemask when he wasn’t looking. Then receiver Chris Godwin failed to take a route upfield and Winston overthrew him badly, a pass that was intercepted by Malcolm Butler to set up Tannehill’s second touchdown pass.

Tennessee needed to go all of 16 yards for those scores.

The referees may have blown that game for the Bucs.

Titans punter/holder Brett Kern tried to execute a fake field-goal attempt but was tackled hard by linebacker Devin White, and the ball popped loose. Safety Andrew Adams returned it for what could have been a game-clinching touchdown. But line judge Mark Stewart blew the play dead while awarding the fumble recovery to the Bucs, taking the touchdown off the board.

Oh, and before Henry became an unstoppable force, he gained only 75 yards on 16 carries against the Bucs’ No. 1-in-the-league rush defense, including a 34-yard run.

If you’re a Bucs fan, do you really want to relive the memories of those painful losses? Do you want to see Tannehill become the Super Bowl MVP or watch Lynch or Robinson hoist the Lombardi Trophy?

What’s on the Discovery Channel?

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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