This was not a knockout.
As coach Mike Munchak and many players pointed out afterward, the Tennessee Titans were still on their feet at the end with a puncher’s chance to win. When the bell sounded Sunday at LP Field, though, they trailed the New Orleans Saints 22-17 on the only scorecard that mattered.
That does not change the fact that along the way they picked themselves up off the mat — both literally and figuratively — and showed a measure of resolve that had been missing from this franchise in recent years.
The most obvious example was that of the quarterbacks.
Starter Matt Hasselbeck was down and out early in the second quarter when something in his left calf gave as he took a step forward intent to make sure a tipped ball did not turn into an interception.
Still, he kept himself as ready as possible and when needed for one play in the fourth quarter he pulled back on his helmet and want back in the game. His short pass to running back Chris Johnson turned into a nine-yard gain. Then he hopped back to the sideline because he was unable to walk.
“We only had two quarterbacks dressed [so] I wasn’t able to ice it,” Hasselbeck said. “The trainers did a bunch of things and did some more at halftime; taped it up, threw some Flexall, just whatever, and just said ‘Hey just try to stay loose.’”
Hasselbeck was needed because rookie Jake Locker got blitzed and blown up by Saints defensive back Tracy Porter. It was a clean hit but also a devastating one that left Locker on the ground writhing in pain and his ability to continue completely in doubt.
Once trainers and doctors got him to the sideline he wanted nothing more than to get a ball in his hands and make a couple throws to test his fitness. He promptly returned to the contest and played a big part in the drama of the closing moments.
“It just kind of knocked the wind out of me,” he said. “I just had to catch my breath.”
Locker’s final completion went to wide receiver Nate Washington for 40 yards and got the Titans within five yards of a game-winning touchdown — but only after Washington pinballed off several Saints defensive players.
He got to his feet and had the presence to get lined up long enough for Locker to spike the ball and stop the clock. Then he dropped to the ground in agony.
Had the trainers come out to tend to him, it would have cost the Titans 10 seconds because they did not have a timeout. Instead, Johnson gathered up Washington, got him to the sideline and hustled back to the huddle.
That was some of the physical punishment the Titans endured. Mentally, they were equally challenged.
Down by 12 with seven minutes to go and their rookie quarterback in command of the offense, they kept swinging away and had the Saints on the ropes in the closing minutes. There were times in recent years when that would not have been the case.
“The team competed [Sunday],” Locker said. “I think that as hard as it is to take this loss, I think that it’s something that we as a football team can be proud of. We never gave up. We had a chance at the end of the game to win that football game against one of the best teams in the league. You can’t ask for anything more.”
No one would argue that the Titans were the more talented team on the field Sunday. Yet they were tough — and that made them tough to beat.