NASHVILLE - When he absolutely, positively needed to play like a grizzled, graying veteran Sunday afternoon, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker unfortunately looked like the rookie reserve that he is.
The ball at the New Orleans Saints 5-yard line with five seconds to play, the Saints on top 22-17, Locker was sacked after being chased from the pocket rather than swiftly throwing the ball out of bounds to stop the clock and save time for one more snap.
"A hard way to lose a football game," said first-year Tennessee coach Mike Munchak. "But we put ourselves in a great position there at the end. We had two shots. I wish we'd had another shot at it."
And at least minimally because of Locker's inexperience, the Titans have no better than a very long shot of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Now 7-6 on the year heading into this weekend's game at the Winless-apolis Colts, the Titans would pretty much have to run the table in their last three starts - at Indy, home against Jackonville (Dec. 24) and at Houston on New Year's Day - to feel good about making the postseason as a wildcard.
Still, Locker's otherwise polished play in more than two full quarters of relief for injured starter Matt Hasselbeck (calf) makes the Titans' decision to select him with the eighth overall pick in last spring's NFL draft look as bright as Christmas lights.
Entering the game with more than 11 minutes to go in the second quarter, Locker threw for one touchdown, ran for another and piled up 282 passing yards without an interception in the University of Washington product's most extensive action of the year.
"Jake Locker did a real good job coming in with the injury to Matt," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "The team rallied around him and he did some good things."
Added Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who knows a thing or two about the position, of Locker's performance on the Titans' final drive: "Locker came back in with a gutty performance and led them down the field."
Indeed, except for that final snap, Locker looked lethal against a defense that had befuddled Atlanta Falcons veteran QB Matt Ryan three weeks ago in the Georgia Dome.
And Brees was also right about the guts. He just should have included Hasselbeck in that conversation. Locker got the wind knocked out of him in the fourth quarter, watched a limping Hasselbeck gingerly enter the huddle and toss a 9-yard-completion to Chris Johnson, then limp much more noticeably from the field upon the rookie's quick return.
Later, when asked what he could have done to protect himself if Locker hadn't come back, Hasselbeck pointedly said, "Nothing."
Yet Locker did come back. And with 1:34 to play and no timeouts to help him, he almost pulled off one of the great upsets of the year in the NFL. First, he found Lavelle Hawkins on a 25-yard strike. Then he went to Nate Washington - whom he'd earlier connected with on a 40-yard score - for a 10-yard completion. Then he found Washington again for a gain to the N.O. 5.
Unfortunately, that's where Locker returned to rookie reserve rather than a just-born star.
"I thought I could make [the tackler] miss," he said. "I needed to throw it away or given somebody a chance to make a play. I didn't throw it, but I should have."
Not every sports weekend is created equal. Except for one awful, disgusting, reprehensible brawl at the close of the Cincinnati-Xavier basketball game and the latter awful, disgusting comments from Xavier players concerning that brawl, this may have been the best overall 48 sports hours in recent memory.
From Indiana's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to knock off No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday evening, to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III's stirring Heisman win, to the runaway feel-good story that is the Tim Tebow Train, there was a little something for everyone except Tennessee Volniacs, who watched their men's basketball team lose to Austin Peay, which entered Thompson-Boling with a 1-9 record.
So if you're a member of the Big Orange Nation, you're probably wondering if you've ever had a more miserable holiday season than this one.
But if you're a Tennessee Titans fan, you have to like Hasselbeck's assessment of Locker as the franchise rebuilds.
"He did a great job, but nothing that he did really surprised me," said the veteran. "One protection call he made at the line of scrimmage was really nice and allowed us to make a big play. Jake has a bright future."
Judging from Sunday, so do the Titans, which would have really surprised their fans and foes alike three months ago.