SAN DIEGO — As the rain fell periodically through Qualcomm Stadium Sunday, it was another offensive drought that helped doom the Tennessee Titans in a 17-6 AFC Wild-Card loss to the San Diego Chargers.
The Titans produced just two first-half field goals from Rob Bironas, and defense that had held the Chargers at bay through two quarters finally broke under three second-half scoring drives that sent San Diego to its first playoff victory since 1994 and on to Indianapolis for next week’s divisional playoffs.
As for the Titans, their season ends with the accomplishment of making the postseason for the first time in four years, but with many of the same offensive problems that plagued the team throughout 2007.
When opportunities to score and perhaps even put the Chargers away early came, the Titans could not cash in. And by not cashing in, the Titans instead bow out of the postseason.
“Our biggest thing was settling for field goals, instead of touchdowns. That’s something that has been plaguing us all season, and it came and got us today,” receiver Justin Gage said.
The Titans, playing without four offensive starters, hung in as a 10-point underdog for much of the game and even built a 6-0 halftime lead with a pair of Bironas field goals. But once the Chargers responded in the second half with 10 third-quarter points and a clinching fourth-quarter touchdown, the Titans had no answers and no chance of advancing in the playoffs.
“We played great in the first half and decent in the second half,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “But we just never responded. When they were able to move and make something happen in the second half, we were just never able to respond.
“We didn’t make enough plays. We needed to score. We needed to respond. They would make a move, and we needed to respond. It was kind of like a long chess game. I don’t think we did a good job of responding. We broke down in coverage three or four crucial times. That is the end result, 17-6.”
The Titans took a 3-0 lead in the rain on their first series of the game, marching 61 yards in 13 plays with Vince Young getting a key 16-yard pass to fullback Ahmard Hall on the third play of the game for a first down.
The Titans reached the San Diego 12 on the drive before settling for a Bironas 30-yard field goal.
Tennessee’s early dominance was evident as the Titans put up seven first downs in the first quarter and held the Chargers to no first downs in the period.
The Titans had a chance to deliver a crushing blow early in the second quarter, methodically marching into the red zone a second time. But when Chris Brown fumbled on a hit by Shawne Merriman and the Chargers’ Shaun Phillips recovered at the 9-yard line, it ended the threat.
Tennessee’s defense continued to be up to the challenge, holding All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson to just six first-half yards (42 for the game) and turning away a pair of Charger scoring chances to preserve the first-half shutout. Cortland Finnegan had an end zone interception on a deep pass from Philip Rivers, and Nate Kaeding missed a 45-yard field goal try in the second quarter.
Tennessee was even able to tack on three more points before halftime on Bironas’ 44-yard field goal at the end of the half.
But that play would be the final hurrah of the Titans’ season, as the Chargers began to assert themselves behind the passing of Rivers and the receiving of Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers in the second half.
San Diego finally got on the scoreboard when Kaeding connected on a 20-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half.
The Chargers followed that with a touchdown drive to take the lead on their next possession. That series was greatly aided by two penalties on Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who ran offside and decked Rivers before the ball was snapped. It gave San Diego the ball at the Titans’ 29, and shortly thereafter, Rivers and Jackson connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass, putting the Chargers in front 10-6.
“You don’t want that to happen, especially when you’ve been playing six years like I have,” Haynesworth said of his two infractions. “It was just a mental letdown. I was just trying to make a play.
“It was a hard count, and he kind of squatted down a little bit, so it looked like he was getting ready to go. I was trying to jump the gap.”
The Titans tried to answer on their next drive and drove as far as the Chargers’ 17 before calling on Bironas again to bail them out. Only this time, the Pro Bowl kicker pulled the ball wide left, and the Titans were left with nothing to show for the nine-play, 54-yard march.
“I didn’t get the best line on it,” Bironas said. “The ref was holding the ball to keep the rain off it and keep it dry. The clock was ticking down. I probably rushed my steps a little bit, and it didn’t feel right.”
That miss came with 14:03 to play, and from there, the Chargers delivered the knockout blow. It came via a 1-yard fourth-and-goal run from Tomlinson, but was set up by a 39-yard pass from Rivers to Chambers that set up first-and-goal at the 8.
“We had a coverage problem that allowed them to get the big gain, but I thought beyond that, our defense played their hearts out,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
“We broke down three or four times,” Bulluck said. “We wanted Philip Rivers to be the one to beat us, and he did a good job of that. Any time you leave people wide open, any quarterback in this league is going to hit them.”
Rivers finished 19 of 30 for 292 yards passing.
For the Titans, the offseason begins, and they hope to fix the shortcomings of Sunday and the 2007 season for the next time the playoffs come around.
“Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to learn how to do as a team. We’ve made it so far over the past couple of years, but we’re just continuing our education right now,” tight end Ben Hartsock said.