Mike Munchak repeatedly talked about the opportunity that existed right to the finish — the opportunity for his Tennessee Titans to defeat the New Orleans Saints, two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory and still one of the National Football League’s best teams.
It lingered through injuries to their starting quarterback and other key players. It endured even though the Titans trailed by 12 points with seven minutes to play. It was there until the moment when five seconds remained on the clock and the offense had the ball five yards from the end zone.
Only then, when rookie quarterback Jake Locker failed to find an open receiver and failed to avoid Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar as time expired, was the opportunity gone.
Gone too — well short of the end of the season — with the 22-17 defeat before a sellout crowd at LP Field on Sunday, was the opportunity to win the AFC South. The Houston Texans saw to that a short time earlier when they rallied to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals.
All that remained was the possibility for a wild card berth, and even that seemed unlikely.
“We gave ourselves two or three chances to get back in the game and then we gave ourselves a couple chances to win the game — and we didn’t,” Munchak said. “I’d much rather have the opportunity — I know it feels horrible — [and] to know that we have a team that can play against anybody in this league and have a chance to win at the end of the game.”
Locker came on when starter Matt Hasselbeck sustained an injury to his left calf early in the second quarter and ultimately completed 13 of 29 passes for 282 yards and one touchdown. Tennessee also lost starting linebacker Akeem Ayers, backup running back Javon Ringer and situational linebacker Gerald McRath along the way.
Wide receiver Nate Washington, who caught six passes for 130 yards and a touchdown had to be helped off the field after his 40-yard reception got the Titans to the 5 on that last possession. As such, he was not on the field for the final snap.
The defense was on the field for 37:33 and allowed New Orleans (10-3) to convert 11 of 19 third-down opportunities. Still, the Saints did not score a touchdown until the fourth quarter and their point total was more than 10 below their season average,
“I thought both teams played hard, fought through some adversity and it was a gut-check win for us,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “… We knew going into this game they were going to be a tough team to play.”
Locker led the Titans (7-6) to all of their points beginning with a field goal on his first full possession and ending with a touchdown with 5:58 to play. The latter got Tennessee back within a single score just 63 seconds after the Saints had gone up 22-10.
He also gave his team its only lead when his 6-yard touchdown run made it 10-9 in favor of Tennessee with 2:19 to play in the third quarter.
With the possibility of a victory very much alive and well he led the offense to the New Orleans’ 24 where he was stopped on a sneak on fourth-and-1 with 2:28 to play. Then, after he got the offense down to the 5 with those mere seconds remaining, he came up just short again.
“I don’t think at the beginning of the year we could have come back like we did,” defensive end Dave Ball said. “It showed a lot of toughness — [Locker] and Nate Washington, everybody. A lot of players stepped up through injuries and whatever.”
Given the way things went, Munchak conceded there plenty of opportunities for second-guessing.
He could have challenged the spot after Locker was stopped on the sneak but said he didn’t think that video would provide a definitive look at the play. He could have avoided that situation altogether had his team not thrown to the end zone on the previous play, a third-and-1. He could have demanded offensive coordinator Chris Palmer call passes on every snap of the final drive instead of the one handoff to Chris Johnson, which ultimately cost 19 seconds.
“The bottom line is a lot of things happened in the game that we could have avoided being in the spot we were in had we done things earlier in the game, but we didn’t,” Munchak said. “As an offense, defense and special teams we found a way to get the ball back, with a chance to win the football game on the 5-yard line.
“We had our opportunity. Yeah, we’ll look at all the other stuff as a team and figure out what we could have done better in the first quarter all the way through. … The good news was that we battled hard to put ourselves in position to beat a good football team. We just didn’t make the last play.”