NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Five points, five yards and five seconds set the stage.
It was up to the Titans to finish the script.
Rookie quarterback Jake Locker took the snap. New Orleans took away his receivers, shoving Damian Williams down to the turf and Marc Mariani out of bounds. Saints defenders also covered up Chris Johnson, Lavelle Hawkins and Jared Cook.
Williams got up and ran across the middle front of the end zone, Locker scrambled to his right for space, but saw too many Saints jerseys in the way. Jo-Lonn Dunbar sacked him after time expired, handing Tennessee a 22-17 loss Sunday at LP Field.
"At that point, you're route's off," Williams said. "You've got to find an opening and get in the quarterback's vision. I think that's the hardest thing to swallow. We're one play away. That can be one play in the first, second, third or fourth quarter. It doesn't have to come down to that, but when it does, you've got to step up."
Locker said he didn't see any of his initial reads, so he rolled out of the pocket in hopes of making a play with his legs.
"From where I was at, I didn't see anybody that I had a good chance of getting it to, and I thought I could make that guy miss. I just need to throw it away or give somebody a chance," Locker said.
The play ended an improbable comeback attempt and sent Titans players out of LP Field thinking about what could have been, replaying the scene in their minds.
"You're on the edge of your seat, like you're in a movie," cornerback Alterraun Verner said of watching the Titans' final possession that started at the Tennessee 20-yard-line with 1:34 left in the game. "(There was) suspense, knowing that we work on this situation all the time. You want to be on the field to help out. It was a great effort on their part."
The Titans had prevented last-gasp efforts by Tampa Bay and Buffalo in the previous two games, and put pressure on New Orleans (10-3). Locker, who relieved starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (calf injury) in the second quarter, threw a quick pass to Hawkins, who raced for a 25-yard gain, then hit Nate Washington for a gain of 10.
Tennessee opted to try a run by Johnson with 48 seconds left but it was stuffed. The Titans (7-6) didn't have a time-out, and 21 seconds later, Locker hit Washington for a 40-yard gain to the New Orleans 5-yard-line. Johnson helped Washington, who was playing through a high ankle sprain, hobble off the field, and Tennessee stopped the clock with seven seconds. Locker tried a quick slant to Mariani that was broken up by Tracy Porter, and then took the final snap.
Saints players streamed off their sideline in celebration, and Titans players slumped.
"Watching that drive, it was excitement," Jurrell Casey said. "That's what you live for on Sunday football: coming down to the last play and see who wins."
Hasselbeck said he was disappointed to be on the sidelines, but credited Locker for leading the Titans to a field goal and two touchdowns. He said there were multiple opportunities missed.
"There's like four plays in mind that I'm going through, that if we did it differently, we would have given ourselves a chance to win. There was a third-and-one, a fourth-and-one; there were two third downs and two fourth downs that really I think that's what we'll feel bad about (Monday) when we watch the film."
QB INJURED AFTER TIPPED BALL: Hasselbeck said he injured his calf while trying to corral a pass that had been batted at the line of scrimmage. He was 4-for-6 passing for 35 yards when he left with 11:13 remaining in the second quarter.
"Those have been intercepted a couple of times this year, so I just tried to react real quick, trying to get to it," Hasselbeck said. "I stepped back and I don't know if it was just soft or what, I just felt something kind of pop."
Hasselbeck said he was afraid he hurt his Achilles' tendon, but the calf injury may be a strain. He will undergo an MRI on it Monday.
Locker entered the game with the Titans down 3-0. He led the Titans on a possession to tie the game and then take a 10-9 edge late in the third quarter. The Saints, however, responded with touchdown throws of 35 and 28 yards from Drew Brees to Marques Colston for a 22-10 lead with 7:01 remaining.
Locker finished 13-of-29 passing for 282 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown pass to Washington with 5:58 remaining. The passing yards are the second-most by a rookie in Titans/Oilers franchise history behind Jacky Lee, who threw for 331 yards in 1960. Locker also rushed six times for 36 yards, including a 6-yard athletic and acrobatic maneuver to reach the end zone.
Locker had the wind knocked out of him during a first-down pass play attempt with 3:24 remaining and had to come out of the game for one play. Hasselbeck, the Titans' only other active quarterback, strapped on a helmet and went back in. He saw New Orleans blitzing and dumped quickly to Johnson for a gain of 9 to the New Orleans 24, then hobbled back off the field. Locker re-entered the game and tried to hit Williams on a fade in the end zone, setting up fourth-and-one.
Locker attempted a quarterback sneak and appeared to move the ball past the yardage marker on the sideline, but the ball was short of the mark when measured by the chain crew.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thought about challenging the spot of the football, but was worried that officials would not have enough video evidence to overturn the call.
WASHINGTON HAS CAREER DAY: Washington, who injured his ankle last week against Buffalo, did not practice this week but told coaches that he would be ready to go.
He delivered a career-high 130 yards receiving on six catches, and extended his streak of games with at least one reception to 59. Washington now has 59 catches for 798 yards (both career highs for a season) and five touchdowns.
"He hadn't practiced all week," Williams said. "I've seen him hobbling around. For him to come out and play like that, that's incredible. I've got a lot of respect for him, and I learned a whole lot from him."
DEFENSE ROTATES THROUGH INJURIES:Tennessee played against New Orleans without starting cornerback Jason McCourty and suffered injuries to linebackers Gerald McRath (knee) and Akeem Ayers (shoulder) during the game.
"We had some people that had to step up, and they did that in according fashion against a very good offense," said Verner, who started in place of McCourty. "Out of all the weeks to have these people out, this was probably the worst, but people stepped up."
The Titans held the Saints below their average in yards (437 instead of 448.7) and points (22 instead of 32.8). Tennessee became the second team to hold New Orleans without a touchdown in a first half this season.
"We knew we weren't going to keep them off the scoreboard," safety Michael Griffin said. "The main purpose was to keep them from scoring a lot of points. If we could erase one of those touchdowns, we'd be standing with smiles on our faces."
PENALTIES DOMINATE FIRST HALF: Penalties on both teams were common during the first half. New Orleans committed eight penalties for 69 yards in the first half and finished with 11 infractions for 95 yards.
Tennessee committed six penalties for 41 yards in the second quarter and finished with eight infractions for 54 yards.
Officials threw flags on four consecutive plays early in the second quarter, ringing up a personal foul against Saints safety Roman Harper for roughing the passer, a false start on Titans tackle Michael Roos and holding and an illegal block against Titans guard Leroy Harris that put the Titans in first-and-35.
THIRD DOWN A PROBLEM: New Orleans converted five of 10 third downs in the first half, enabling the Saints to possess the ball for 18 minutes, 48 seconds in the first 30 minutes. Tennessee went 0-for-4 on its third down attempts in the first half.
The pattern continued in the second half, with the Saints converting six of nine third downs in the second half, and the Titans going one of six.
New Orleans entered the game as the best in the league at converting third downs (53.2 percent) and improved that Sunday.
NO TURNOVERS: Although the Saints entered the game at minus-six in turnover margin on the road, and Tennessee entered at plus-two at home, neither team committed a turnover Sunday.
The Titans came close to forcing a turnover when Verner and New Orleans receiver Devery Henderson battled for a pass, with both men going to the ground with their hands on the ball. Officials ruled a completion for 12 yards, and Brees hit Colston five plays later to go up 16-10.
"They kind of ruled it in his favor," Verner said. "I think it goes back to the fact that if it's a tie, it goes back to the offensive guy. The referees decided to go with him, through no fault by them. I did my best to win the possession, but they make the decision."
SACK PACK: Rookie Karl Klug sacked Brees two times. Klug, the Titans' leader with six sacks on the season, dropped Brees for a loss of 7 late in the second quarter and another loss of 7 in the fourth quarter. Klug burst through the offensive line on the second sack to force a punt by the Saints with 4:48 left in the game.
"It's a good feeling to help out the team to get in that situation, but without the win, it really doesn't mean anything," Klug said. "On that first one, I'd say our secondary had everything to do with that one. (Brees) had the ball for like 10 seconds or whatever it was."