NASHVILLE, Tenn. —** Only 36 inches separated the Titans from the end zone late in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
They were so close that center Ben Jones might have scraped his knuckles on the goal line before snapping the football.
One five-yard penalty, one sack and one incomplete pass later, however, the Titans were forced to kick a field goal, a pivotal moment in Tennessee's 27-23 defeat.
In its own way, the disappointing end to that impressive early drive symbolized the Titans' frustrations over the past three weeks.
Three straight times during that stretch — in games against Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles — the Titans have had opportunities to better their playoff aspirations.
Three straight times, the Titans have suffered excruciating one-possession losses, three defeats by a grand total of 11 points.
Against Arizona, the Titans' offense was twice turned away with opportunities to produce a game-winning score. Against San Francisco, the offense produced a potentially game-winning touchdown, only to see the 49ers march down the field and kick a field goal as time expired.
And Sunday against the Rams, the Titans were stymied on their final three possessions, twice reaching midfield but never advancing past the Los Angeles 43.
"We're just not making the plays that we need to win," Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Give credit to our defense for keeping us in the game, scoring a touchdown and giving us an opportunity to win in the end.
"I've got to be better. I've got to give our guys a chance to make plays. It's unfortunate, but it's something that we can learn from and get better from."
The good news for the Titans is that — as agonizing as the last three weeks have been — the regular season still doesn't have to end with a "so close, yet so far" theme.
A win in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville next Sunday and the Titans are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. A win against the Jaguars and Titans fans are talking about postseason match-ups, as opposed to ruminating on what might have been.
It's as straightforward a scenario as the Titans could have hoped for at this point: Beat the Jaguars and they won't have to watch the scoreboard or rely on anyone else for help.
"It's really the fourth opportunity to clinch a playoff berth," Titans defensive lineman Karl Klug said. "We're definitely going to have to take advantage of that. We can't let that one slip away. I know we can do it. Once we win and we're in, I think we feel confident that we can play with anyone."
The Titans can take some positives out of a tight loss to the NFC West champions, who have now won eight of their last 10 games.
• Offensively, the Titans looked livelier than they had in weeks, using a significant dose of the no-huddle offense to produce 366 yards. Rookie wide receiver Corey Davis also totaled a career-best 91 receiving yards on six catches, much of the time playing with an injured shoulder.
"Having him take that next step is huge and key for us," Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said of Davis. "He's dangerous with the ball in his hands and we've got to continue to find ways to give him the football."
The two issues that hurt the Titans' offense most were its struggles on third down (three-for-12) and in the red zone (one-for-four).
• Defensively, the Titans scored their first touchdown of the season. A unit that had been desperate for more turnovers produced a big one in the second quarter, when Jurrell Casey forced a fumble that Wesley Woodyard converted into a score.
"We've been missing that," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "Those are the things that certainly help you win games in most cases."
In addition, when the Titans needed a fourth-quarter stop to get one more chance at winning the game, they stopped the Rams with plenty of time still left on the clock.
Sure, Rams quarterback Jared Goff delivered some punishment by throwing for 301 yards and four touchdowns. But considering the Titans were playing the highest-scoring offense in the league without two of their top three corners — Logan Ryan and LeShaun Sims — some struggles had to be expected.
• On special teams, returner Adoree Jackson set up a Titans touchdown with a career-best, 58-yard kickoff return. The Titans also appeared to have smartly executed a quick and successful onside kick in the second half, until officials denied the recovery with a series of explanations that still have everyone scratching their head.
So there are certainly reasons to believe as the Titans prepare for the finale against Jacksonville.
The Titans would have preferred to take care of business with a win or two over the past three weeks. But with one game remaining, they still have hope, and that's something every team wants at the end of the regular season.
"We've got to put one together," Mariota said, "and we're looking forward to the challenge next week."
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
The Tennessee Titans take on the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16 at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)