’Tis the season of giving.
But with Sunday’s 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Tennessee Titans just might have given away their playoff hopes.
To make matters worse, the Titans gave away a 14-point lead with 7:29 to play, as the Chargers rallied back with two late touchdowns in regulation, then won the game in extra time on LaDainian Tomlinson’s 16-yard touchdown, ironically, with 7:29 left in overtime.
“It’s rough. You go out there and play as hard as you can against a good team and not come out on top, it hurts,” defensive back Vincent Fuller said.
It hurts the Titans most in the AFC playoff chase. Tennessee fell to 7-6 with the loss, tied with the Buffalo Bills, and now a game behind Cleveland for the AFC’s final wild-card spot. Jacksonville, a winner over Carolina, is now 9-4 and disappearing over the horizon as far as the Titans are concerned in the wild-card race.
The Titans are in a position now where they likely will have to win their three remaining games, beginning next Sunday at Kansas City, in order to make the postseason.
“That is probably the case. There’s three games left, and we’re sitting here 7-6. I don’t think 9-7 or 8-8 is going to make it,” Fuller said.
The Titans have only themselves — and perhaps an inconclusive replay — to blame.
After leading just 3-0 at half, the Chargers tied the game on their first second half possession, turning a Vince Young interception by Erik Wilhelm into Nate Kaeding’s 20-yard field goal.
Shortly after that, the Titans took control of the game. A Nick Harper interception of Philip Rivers was returned 32 yards to the Chargers’ 19. From there, the Titans needed four plays to score, with Chris Brown going in from 7 yards away to put Tennessee ahead 10-3.
On their next offensive possession, the Titans moved 42 yards in seven plays with LenDale White, who finished with 113 yards rushing, going 7 yards up the middle for a touchdown and a 17-3 advantage.
Both the scoreboard and the stat sheet showed the Titans in control, as Tennessee had allowed the Chargers only 110 yards of total offense to that point.
That’s when the collapse began, as the Chargers piled up 231 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter and overtime, first getting a Rivers-to-Tomlinson 7-yard touchdown pass that moved them to within 17-10, then getting one final shot after a Titans third-down incompletion with 2:32 to play forced a punt.
“I was trying to win the ballgame,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of the decision to pass. “They had a timeout and the two-minute warning. I’m trying to win the ballgame when it’s third-and-four.”
The onus was then shifted to the defense to try and keep the Chargers at bay, and Tennessee was able to put San Diego in a desperate fourth-and-5 situation from its own 25. That’s when Rivers heaved a 19-yard pass to Chris Chambers, who made a diving grab that most of the Titans’ players insisted was not a catch, even though replays were inconclusive.
“We really think it wasn’t a catch, but that’s not up to us as players,” defensive tackle Tony Brown said. “We feel like they got away with one, but at the same time, they got it and they executed when they needed to.”
From there, the Chargers continued their game-tying march and scored when tight end Antonio Gates outfoxed rookie Michael Griffin, scoring on a 2-yard pass with nine seconds left in regulation.
“He ran a good route. He’s Gates. There nothing really that you can say,” Griffin said. “He just ran a good route, and I fell for his inside shake, and he ran a fade — touchdown.”
Fate wasn’t with the Titans either, as they lost the coin flip and put a tired defense back on the field to start overtime. Tennessee managed to force a punt, but the Chargers downed the ball at the 2, and a bottled-up Titans offense had no chance to get anything going.
“They get the ball on the 1, there’s not much they can do, and as a defense,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “If they get it out of there, that’s a bonus, because you play conservative because you’re in sudden death. It was already in my mind that we were going out there around the 45 or 50-yard line, not allowed to give up a first down.”
But the Titans not only gave up a first down, but eventually the winning touchdown to Tomlinson, who scooted 16 yards off left tackle to ice the Chargers’ comeback and break the Titans’ back.
Tennessee is now forced to pick up the pieces and go on the road at Kansas City.
“With [seven] minutes to go and we’re up by 14, and I’m now standing here talking to you about a loss,” Bulluck said. “With three games left, the only thing we’ve got to worry about is what we’re going to do in those next three. What happened today happened. It sucks, but we have three games left and we need to take care of business.”