So close to a victory that would put them in the lead for an AFC wild-card berth, the Tennessee Titans instead came up five yards and five points short, falling 22-17 to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at LP Field.
“I have no words for this. What can you do? We fought, we clawed, we scratched, we just couldn't pull it off,” receiver Damian Williams said.
The Titans' chances for victory ended when rookie quarterback Jake Locker was sacked by Jo-Lunn Dunbar at the Saints 7-yard line as time expired.
Locker had come on in the second quarter after starter Matt Hasselbeck suffered a left calf injury on an incomplete pass, and rallied the Titans with a strong fourth quarter effort that fell just short.
The game certainly did not go according to Tennessee's plan. Chris Johnson managed just 23 yards, the Titans were just 1 of 10 on third down, and they lost the time of possession by more than 15 minutes.
Yet, somehow, thanks to a spirited defensive effort that, despite two second-half breakdowns, somehow held the Saints at bay for most of the day, the Titans still had a shot to win it.
“It came down to the last five seconds, and I was on the sideline,” defensive end Jason Jones said. “I knew we were going to win. I knew it. But that's how things happen.”
Down 22-10 with 7:01 left after Drew Brees' second TD pass to Marques Colston in a span of just over five minutes, Locker rallied the Titans.
He needed just three plays to respond with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington to cut the lead back to five points with 5:58 left.
Locker and the Titans would get two more chances to upset the Saints, but each time New Orleans' defense stiffened when it needed a play.
The first time, Locker took the ball from his own 35 and drove the Titans to the 24-yard line, where he faced fourth-and-1. The Titans went for a quarterback sneak and Locker was stopped just short, giving the Saints possession of the ball with 2:18 left.
“At that far, you're just trying to get as far as you can in the pile, and you're looking at the sticks when they blow it dead,” Locker said of the sneak. “I felt like we had a really good push and had a good opportunity to get the first down.”
But the Saints took over, and trying to run the clock, instead came up against the Titans defense determined to make one last stand to give Locker one final shot to pull the game out. Tennessee stopped the Saints on third down as Jurrell Casey batted away a Brees for Chris Ivory with 1:44 left.
From his 20, Locker went back to work, hitting Lavelle Hawkins for 25 yards and then Washington two plays later for 40 yards, giving Tennessee first-and-goal at the 5 with seven seconds to play.
A first-down pass fell incomplete as Tracy Porter broke up a ball for Marc Mariani, and on the final play, Locker scrambled and was sacked, snuffing out the Titans' chances.
“From where I was at, I didn't see anybody that I had a good chance of getting it to and I thought I could make that guy miss,” Locker said. “I just need to throw it away or give somebody a chance.”
While Locker didn't give someone a chance at the end, it was his play that woke up a Tennessee offense in the final quarter. He finished 13 of 29, but had 282 yards and a touchdown.
“Y'all saw it in Atlanta. We see it every day. We've got all the confidence in the world in him and he came in and did what he was supposed to do,” said Williams, who caught a 54-yard pass from Locker in the third quarter that set up the rookie QB's 6-yard touchdown run that briefly gave Tennessee a 10-9 lead.
With the loss, the Titans fell to 7-6 and lost any chance of winning the AFC South, when the Houston Texans clinched moments later with a 20-19 win over Cincinnati. It leaves the Titans a game out of the final AFC wild-card spot, currently held by the New York Jets at 8-5.
For much of the day, the Titans battled and had little to show it except keeping the league's No. 1 offense to three field goals through two-and-a-half quarters. It was a defensive effort that was, for the most part, good enough to win with, despite Brees hitting 36 of 47 passes for 337 yards and two scores.
“I'm pretty sure when we look back at the tape, there are going to be some things we could have done better, but to play Drew Brees and those guys and holding them to 22, you can't ask for too much better than that,” safety Chris Hope said.
Added end Dave Ball, “We should've won it, but coulda, shouda woulda. We've got three conference games in a row, and I'm looking forward to them, because I thought our team showed a lot of heart today. I don't think at the beginning of the year, we could've come back like we did.”
Next up are the winless Indianapolis Colts on the road, followed by the home finale against Jacksonville and a winding up the regular season at Houston.