Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 17: Saints at Titans Week 14

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The future is now ... right?

Well, that depends on your perspective. The Tennessee Titans, and the greater populace of football fans, were served notice on the future, as well as the QB class of 2011, in our 17th best game of last season.

Jake Locker went in the 8-hole two drafts ago, amidst the shock of many. While he was considered a first-round talent, a lot of draftniks: A) felt that he was a superb athlete who was not as refined as other prospects (Blaine Gabbert!?), and B) underestimated how much love the Tennessee front office had for the kid out of the University of Washington. Teams don't draft players eighth overall to sit on the bench.

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Except Mike Munchak and the Titans. You see, there are those (like owner Bud Adams) who were around when the organization took Steve McNair third overall and sat him for the better part of two years. Yes, the club was the lovable Oilers at the time, and yes, quarterbacks come into the NFL now having run pro style offenses in college. But with Locker, the real stipulation to him getting on the field had a bald head and 12 years of experience.

Like Locker, Matt Hasselbeck also garnered the affinity of the Titans front office, enough so that he started all 16 games of the 2012 season. For the most part, Hasselbeck delivered what was expected -- good leadership, a relatively low number of mistakes, and while never putting the team on his back and winning games, rarely was he the reason the team lost. Locker was drafted to win games, and he darn near pulled one out in Atlanta in Week 11.

This was Week 14, with Tennessee desperately needing a W to stay in the playoff race. At 7-5, a loss to the Saints would put Tennessee behind the 8-ball, with two of the next three games on the road. There were also four other clubs sitting at 7-5 vying for the sixth and final seed.

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Meanwhile, the Saints came in cruising at 9-3, looking to lock up the NFC South after winning four straight. The game started that way, with New Orleans marching 72 yards on the opening drive en route to a John Kasay field goal. The Titans defense would stiffen up, allowing the Saints only six points in the first half, their second lowest output of the season.

Tennessee put up a measly three points in the first half, with Hasselbeck going down in the second quarter with an awkward calf injury. That's when Locker started showing what he could do, and our 17th best game of 2011 got interesting.

But first Drew Brees went off. Starting late in the second quarter, the Saints went on drives of 67, 86, 72, and 60 yards on four consecutive possessions. Brees would complete over 75 percent of his passes this day, no small feat on nearly 50 pass attempts. New Orleans would get two field goals and two touchdowns out of all this mileage and built an imposing 22-10 fourth-quarter lead.

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What made this game great was that Brees was not the only big-time quarterback on the field. Locker more than got his feet wet, running for one of the more exciting stretch-it-over-the-plane touchdown runs you'll ever see, then repeatedly putting the ball on the vertical money when Tennessee had to have it. Case in point: his 40-yard gem to Nate Washington make it 22-17 with 7:01 left in the game, splitting the field and hitting the speedy wideout with a too slow linebacker in pursuit.

Once again, Locker used his feet to avoid the rush and hit Washington 40 yards downfield and put his club in position. It was not to be, as Locker finally looked like a rook, taking an ill-advised sack on the final play of the contest. Still, what a game, and what a talent.

Later in the fourth, Locker got the Titans deep in Saints territory, but not before taking a shot to the ribs that knocked him out of the game. And yet, just liked he showed his maturity on the throw to Washington, he displayed toughness to continue the drive. Tennessee would get stopped on a controversial fourth-and-short with 2:32 left. Thanks to an inspired defensive stop of their own, the Titans got one more drive to win this thing.

Can’t Miss Play: Locker’s hanging-in-mid-air, twisting-but-controlled-reach-of-the-football was nothing short of spectacular. Easily one of the best rushing touchdowns of last season, it’s worth another look. Locker might not have been ready to start full time, but his athletic ability is beyond reproach.

Controversial Call 1: Tight end Jimmy Graham just barely missed a touchdown late in the third when he couldn’t get one of his feet down, or at least the way the official saw it. Needing a touchdown in a 6-3 game, Saints head coach Sean Payton challenged the call. He lost. Upon seeing the replay, it turns out Graham got all but one spike down. One. Spike. Unreal.

Controversial Call 2: Down 22-17 with 2:32 left, and knocking on the door at the 24-yard line, Locker was stuffed on a fourth-and-short that the Titans desperately needed. Watch it again, as it looks like the Saints got a gratuitous spot.

Best player on the Field: Despite not getting a lot of points n the board through three quarters, Drew Brees was ridiculously effective... again. While these numbers are starting to become old hat for the face of the franchise, it’s tough to ignore 36 of 47 for 337 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.

Record Breakers: Brees again. His touchdown pass to Marques Colston with 12:39 left in the fourth quarter gave the Saints a narrow 16-10 lead, and gave him personally 40 straight games with a touchdown pass, making him just the second quarterback ever to hit that benchmark.

Why this Game is No. 17: While some fans might have forgotten this game, it wasn’t because it was undeserving of its spot on our list. Cross-conference battles in Tennessee are generally not privy to national audiences, but this Locker-Brees duel was nothing short of dramatic. The kid hung in there, while a team not known for its defense made two pivotal stops with less than three minutes of game clock on two different drives. Clutch football in a game with playoff stakes = a top game of 2011.

Why not Higher: Considering the slow nature of the first half, it was hard to put this in the top 10 or 12. A penalty wiped out a Darren Sproles punt return touchdown, and a bad spot might have affected the outcome overall. Had Locker pulled it out, this would easily be in the top 10.

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