The Ghost of 0-6 Past haunted the Tennessee Titans in their Christmas night 42-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
In front of a national television audience, Tennessee no longer resembled the resurgent bunch that had squared its record and pulled itself back to the cusp of playoff contention. Rather, they succumbed to the same turnovers, penalties and poor execution that dug a six-loss hole to begin the season.
The Titans, who fell to 7-8 and completely out of the AFC wild-card picture with the loss, reverted back to its losing ways against the red-hot Chargers, with three turnovers and nine penalties for 74 yards.
Add that to Vince Young’s first poor performance since returning to the starting lineup and it added up to far too little, far too late as the Titans’ smoldering playoff hopes were finally extinguished.
“There were turnovers, defensive penalties, personal fouls, little things that can hurt you quickly,” safety Michael Griffin said. “It was like everything just came right back around. … It was kind of like the things that beat us early in the season when we were 0-6. We went back to our old ways.”
The Titans will close the season fittingly at Seattle’s Qwest Field, where the only quest left for them is running back Chris Johnson’s pursuit  of 2,000 yards.
Johnson was the Titans’ lone bright spot Christmas night, gaining 142 yards on 21 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown run. Johnson has 1,872 yards rushing and now needs 128 yards to become the sixth back in NFL history to reach the 2,000-yard plateau. Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark of 2,105 is 233 yards away.
After Tennessee took an early 3-0 lead on its first drive of the game, the Chargers took control and showed why they have now won 18 consecutive December games and now 10 in a row overall this season. San Diego dominated throughout, but got a big assist early from the Titans’ own mistakes.
Five different times in the first half, the Titans jumped offsides on defense, including three times on San Diego’s first touchdown drive.
“We had way too many penalties, way too many mistakes, and versus a good team like they are, they took advantage of all our mistakes,” said defensive end Dave Ball, who had one of the five offsides infractions. “Every penalty we had on a drive, they converted it into points.”
If that wasn’t enough, Young turned the ball over on two first-half possessions, being intercepted by Chargers linebacker Brandon Siler to kill a Titans drive to the San Diego 29 and begin San Diego’s first TD drive, capped off by LaDainian Tomlinson’s 1-yard run.
After a mixup in coverage led to a wide-open Antonio Gates scoring on a 36-yard pass from Philip Rivers, Young fumbled near midfield to end the next drive. The Chargers converted that into a score as well with Rivers hitting Darren Sproles from 3 yards out.
“We just couldn’t get into a rhythm tonight,” said Young, who finished 8 of 21 for 89 yards with two interceptions. “Too many turnovers on my behalf, definitely. That’s pretty much it.”
Young’s struggles were visible, but he was far from Tennessee’s only culprit Friday night.
Again the Titans defense aided and abetted the Chargers’ ensuing drive with a pair of personal foul penalties, one on William Hayes for a late hit on Rivers, and another on the Titans sideline after defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil exchanged words with an official, giving the Chargers 30 penalty yards after a meager 2-yard gain on the actual pass play.
It went downhill from there for the Titans, who did managed to sandwich a 3-yard touchdown run from Young just before the half around the Chargers’ scoring barrage.
San Diego scored on six of seven possessions during one stretch, with only a one-play kneel down at the end of the half interrupting the Chargers’ scoring onslaught.
In the midst of that, the Titans fared no better in the second half, falling completely out of the game by surrendering three unanswered touchdowns, to turn a 21-10 halftime deficit into a 42-10 rout at the start of the final period.
Rivers was phenomenal, hitting on 21 of 27 passes for 264 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Chargers’ formula for success was simple: Rivers and his receivers would move the ball downfield, and Tomlinson and Sproles would push it into the end zone. San Diego’s running back tandem scored five of the Chargers’ six touchdowns in the game. Each had a pair of rushing touchdowns, and Sproles added one on a 3-yard pass from Rivers.
For the Titans, the problems and woes of their winless first two months of the season had finally come home to roost, taking out their last gasp of playoff life in the process. To have that sort of sluggish play revisit them in a game with so much at stake made it all the more harder to take.
“It’s disappointing with everything we were fighting for and trying to get done to come up short, especially the way we did,” receiver Justin Gage said.
By the time Johnson had scored his consolation touchdown, there was only a consolation prize left for the Titans to claim for their efforts in the 2009 season, a chance to finish 8-8 for the fifth time in Jeff Fisher’s 15-year tenure.
“Trying to finish at .500 after an 0-6 start, that’s a good comeback, but it’s not where we want to be,” Gage said. “It’s tough. When we came into the season, we had the talent level, but it took us six weeks to get it clicking, and in the NFL, you can’t have that.”