NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jake Locker knows he should have thrown the ball away or given a teammate a chance to make a play. The rookie wound up sacked on the final play with the ball in his hand.
"I am not going to second guess anything he did," Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
Locker, the eighth overall pick, came off the bench Sunday early in the second quarter when Matt Hasselbeck strained his left calf. Locker threw for 282 yards and a touchdown while he ran for 36 yards and a TD.
But the Titans lost 22-17 to the New Orleans Saints, snapping their two-game winning streak as their playoff hopes took a hit.
The Houston Texans beat Cincinnati to clinch the AFC South, and the Titans (7-6) have three games left.
"We have to win all three games," Munchak said.
The Titans watched Drew Brees and the Saints (10-3) do what they wanted to do to New Orleans in playing keep away. New Orleans held the ball for more than 37 minutes.
Chris Johnson, who had led the NFL in rushing over the past four weeks, looked much more like the running back who struggled throughout the first half of the season. He was held to 23 yards on 11 carries.
Nate Washington caught six passes for 130 yards, including a 40-yard TD pass.
But Tennessee held New Orleans to three field goals early, and Locker got the offense moving with his arm and his feet.
With no timeouts left and the final seconds ticking off, Locker scrambled to his right looking for someone before being sacked by Jo-Lonn Dunbar to end the game. Locker said he thought about running.
"Once I got outside the pocket there were a lot of guys there," Locker said. "It ended up that I didn't throw it anyway but ... I should have."
Now the Saints (10-3) have won five straight and remain in the lead of the NFC South with three games left in the regular season. They clinched a playoff berth when the Chicago Bears lost in overtime to the Denver Broncos later Sunday.
They got another strong performance from Brees, who joined Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas as the only quarterbacks to throw a touchdown pass in 40 straight games. He threw for 337 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter, and Marques Colston caught both. The receiver finished with 105 yards on seven catches.
"We knew they were going to get yards," Tennessee safety Michael Griffin said. "Drew knows how to dissect a defense."
"It was a gut-check win for us," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "A lot of things early on didn't go our way. We had some calls that could have went either way. We just kept fighting and won a good game on the road against a good team."
Penalties and other mistakes kept New Orleans' league-leading offense from getting any rhythm through three quarters, and three times the Saints got within 11 yards of the end zone only to settle for a field goal. John Kasay kicked field goals of 29, 25 and 22 yards to help the Saints build a 9-3 third-quarter lead.
The Saints also missed another scoring opportunity early in the first half. Darren Sproles returned a punt 82 yards to the end zone, but the score was negated on a holding call on Dunbar. The linebacker made up for it with his play at the end when he sacked Locker.
"I was just hoping they didn't throw a flag. I kind of grabbed him by the helmet," Dunbar said. "It was definitely a lot of relief to see those guys jumping, and with that excitement, you can't put a price tag on that."
The Titans also had a chance when stopped on fourth down at the Saints 24 with 2:18 left. On fourth-and-1, Locker kept the ball. Though a replay seemed to show he picked up the needed yard, the officials ruled him down with no gain, and the Titans did not challenge the ruling. Munchak said he didn't think they would get the replay needed to get the call overturned.
Tennessee held New Orleans on the next drive, and Washington caught a 40-yard pass from Locker with 27 seconds left, setting up the final Titans' rally.
Notes: Payton and Brees together are 20-0 in games where the Saints don't turn the ball over. ... New Orleans improved to 4-3 in road games. ... Klug entered the game leading Tennessee in sacks, and his two against New Orleans gives him six for the season. ... Brees extended his NFL-record streak of games with 20 or more completions to 33. ... The Saints' victory ended a streak of four wins by the Titans in the 13-game series between the teams.