Locker-Hunter connection lifts Titans past Chargers
NASHVILLE -- For all the complexity of National Football League playbooks, there was nothing subtle about the play Tennessee used to win Sunday.
"It was just, go," Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter said.
Hunter went all right, streaking down the right sideline to the end zone and hauling in Jake Locker's 34-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to give Tennessee a dramatic 20-17 win over San Diego.
It was not only the first scoring catch for Hunter, but the first reception in his three-game career. It was also redemption for the rookie from the University of Tennessee after he dropped a potential 44-yard touchdown catch midway through the second quarter.
On that play, the 6-foot-4, 203-pound Hunter didn't jump for the ball and had his arms restrained for an instant by free safety Eric Weddle. According to Locker, Hunter learned a lesson from that play.
"He went up and got that ball at its highest point," Locker said. "That's why we acquired him -- because of his speed and because he can go up and get that ball."
Hunter felt Weddle interfered with him, but might have gotten away with one on his winning catch. Replays showed Hunter slightly pushing off Crezdon Butler just before he leaped over the 6-foot-1 Butler.
Asked if he felt a flag should have been thrown, Chargers coach Mike McCoy wasn't taking the bait.
"No excuses," McCoy said. "We coached (Butler) up in the short time he's been here as best we could. They made the play at the end and that's why they won."
Besides that, the San Diego defense had no one but themselves to blame. The Titans (2-1) drove 94 yards with no timeouts after gaining possession on their 6-yard line following a punt and their 11th penalty -- a block in the back during Darius Reynaud's 1-yard return.
Locker was 7-for-9 on the drive for all 94 yards as he authored his first game-winning drive in his three-year career.
"I just had a calm feeling," Locker said of his mindset before the last drive. "There was no panic. We had enough time to go down and make things happen."
The Chargers could have ended the drive with under a minute left, but Marcus Gilchrist failed to hang on to a potential game-ending interception after Locker's pass to a wide-open Delanie Walker clanked out of Walker's arms, then out of Gilchrist's.
San Diego (1-2) also could have put the game away with another first down on its next-to-last possession. But backup lineman Rich Ohrnberger was flagged for holding with 3:17 left, forcing the Chargers into a 2nd-and-16 instead of a 3rd-and-2 situation.
They ran the ball two more plays and then punted, setting up the wild finish.
"It's a matter of us making mistakes at critical times," McCoy said. "It hurts."
San Diego took advantage of a short field to score on its first possession. The Chargers took over at the Tennessee 49 and needed just six plays to score as Philip Rivers flipped a 7-yard scoring strike to Antonio Gates with 9:34 left in the first quarter.
Rob Bironas' 20-yard field goal with 13 minutes remaining in the first half got the Titans on the board, but Nick Novak responded with a 44-yard field goal with 4:47 left to make it 10-3. That was set up when Tennessee punter Brett Kern dropped a perfect snap and was tackled at his 30.
It was the biggest mistake in a half full of errors for the Titans. They were flagged 10 times for 110 yards and also dropped a handful of passes, including Hunter's flub on a perfectly-thrown bomb down the middle of the field.
"It seemed like the gray-area calls went against us," Tennessee coach Mike Munchak said, "but I thought the guys did a good job of shrugging it off. They just kept playing and we cut out the penalties in the second half."
The Titans finished the half strong. Locker threw for 79 yards on the game-tying drive, capping it with a 7-yard scoring run with 1:08 left, and Bernard Pollard blocked Novak's 38-yard field goal try on the half's last play. That sent the teams into the locker room even at 10.
Ronnie Brown's 1-yard touchdown dive with 2:42 remaining in the third quarter gave the Chargers a 17-10 advantage.
Rivers finished 20-for-24 for 184 yards.
NOTES: San Diego played without five starters -- WR Malcom Floyd, LB Manti Te'o, LB Donald Butler, CB Shareece Wright and RT D.J. Fluker -- that were declared inactive. ... The only Tennessee starter who wound up on the inactive list was DT Sammie Hill. ... The Titans beat the Chargers for the first time since Sept. 27, 1992, when they were still based in Houston. That streak lasted nine games and 20 seasons.