NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As far as Jake Locker can take them, that’s how far most folks figure the Tennessee Titans will go this season.
Well, figure this:
On Sunday at sold out LP Field, the third-year quarterback took the Titans on a 94-yard game-winning drive in the final 1:50 with no timeouts for a thrilling 20-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. The clincher in the come-from-behind win came on a 34-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Justin Hunter with just 15 seconds remaining.
For the game, Locker completed 23-of-37 passes for 299 yards and the game-winning touchdown for a season-best 96.6 rating. The fleet-footed Locker also got it done on the ground, too, rushing for 68 yards on the five times he decided to tuck the ball and run.
That’s right –- 367 yards of total offense by Locker. Go figure.
“There was a calm feeling,” Locker said of the team’s disposition during the game-winning drive in which he completed 8-of-10 passes. The only incompletions were a dropped pass and an intentional stopping of the clock.
“I don’t think there was panic,” Locker added. ” … There was just a feeling that there was enough time to go down and make something happen. And that’s what the guys believed in.”
The belief in Locker –- the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2011 — as the franchise quarterback has grown exponentially during the start of the season. A week ago Sunday, he engineered a key 99-yard scoring drive late in the overtime loss at Houston, and he also played solidly in the season-opening win at Pittsburgh.
But on Sunday, Locker might have seized for good not only the reins of the offense, but the entire team leadership as well. Just maybe, the jury that had been out when it came to assessing Locker has finally reached a verdict.
“I hope it leads to a lot of great things, obviously,” Titans head coach Mike Munchak said about how this victory will impact Locker and the team going forward. … “I think it just gives our whole team confidence when you take the ball 94 yards with no timeouts and 1:50.”
Setting up the final drive was a defensive stand by the Titans that had the Chargers taking possession with 6:07 to play and with a 17-13 lead. After just one first down, San Diego punted the ball to the Titans, who started the drive at their own 6-yard line following a penalty.
“That’s the stuff at times last year we didn’t get done,” said Munchak, whose team went 6-10 in 2012. “Last week (versus Houston), we didn’t get it done that way.”
The Titans scored the game’s last 10 points to erase a 17-10 deficit. The Titans pulled within 17-13 with 6:07 to play on a 37-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. During that drive, Locker completed a key fourth down conversion to keep the drive alive with a 17-yard pass to receiver Nate Washington.
“Give them credit,” Chargers rookie head coach Mike McCoy said. “But when it comes down to the end of the game, we didn’t make a play, and they made one more play than we did.”
Instead, it was the rangy Hunter, the 6-foot-4 second-round draft pick out of Tennessee, who would go up and over Chargers cornerback Crezdon Butler, who stands three inches shorter. It was Hunter’s first career reception.
“Not bad for his first catch to be a game winner,” Munchak said of Hunter. “So, that just shows you what his ability is, why we are so excited about him. He just adds another element to our offense and, so, a great catch by him.”
Locker completed passes to eight different Titans, including eight for 131 yards to Washington, both team highs, and six for 71 yards to receiver Kendall Wright. But it was the pressure Locker put on the San Diego defense with his ability to run that caught McCoy’s eye most.
“We let the quarterback make plays with his feet today,” McCoy said, “and that was a big key coming into the game — don’t let Locker get going with his feet. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that.”
Conversely, Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, who was named AFC Player of the Week after the team’s win at Philadelphia, completed 20-of-24 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. But the Chargers were held to only 102 rushing yards on but 27 attempts.
In addition to Locker, the Titans showed offensive balance. Running back Chris Johnson had 90 yards on 19 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per attempt. In all, the Titans had 29 rushes for 170 yards to go with Locker’s 37 pass attempts.
“Of course, I had confidence in him,” Johnson said of Locker leading the final drive. “He’s getting better and better every week. He was in the huddle telling us to keep fishing. That it was going to happen, and it did.”
After the score was tied at 10-10 at halftime, San Diego took the lead late in the third quarter when Rivers directed a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive for a 17-10 lead. Rivers completed two big passes to two tight ends — a 34-yarder to Ladarius Green to the Titans’ 19 and a 10-yarder to Antonio Gates to the Titans 1 — before Chargers running back Ronnie Brown capped the drive on a one-yard plunge.
The Chargers left several points on the field in the first half. Already holding a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter, the Chargers got great field position when Titans punter Mitch Kern fumbled the snap to give San Diego the ball at the Tennessee 30-yard line.
It appeared the Chargers had gone up 14-3 when Rivers connected with receiver Eddie Royal on a 5-yard scoring strike. But fellow receiver Keenan Allen was flagged for pass interference to negate the score. And Rivers was flagged another 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing on the play.
“I didn’t say one thing that was out of line,” Rivers said of the costly penalty. ” … But that’s no excuse. I’m certainly not proud of getting a penalty.”
Going from first-and-goal from the 5-yard line to first-and-goal from the 30, the Chargers had to settle for a 44-yard field goal by Nick Novak and a 10-3 lead.
Seizing the momentum the from the defensive stand aided by the Chargers’ penalties, the Titans answered to tie the score at 10-10 with 1:08 remaining in the half when Locker guided an eight-play, 76-yard scoring drive that he culminated with a 7-yard scoring run.
But the Chargers drove the ensuing possession from its own 20 to the Titans’ 20 in just over a minute. But they had a 38-yard field goal attempt by Novak blocked by Titans defender Bernard Pollard as time expired and the score tied at 10-10.
“I think it’s huge for us in front of our home crowd,” Locker said of the home opener played in front of 69,143 fans. “It wasn’t pretty, but when we needed to we stepped up and made plays.”