They bent and they broke, the Chargers defenders did, yielding a 13-play, 89-yard drive that cut their last-minute lead to one point.
Then they shrugged and won the game anyway.
The Chargers stopped Tennessee on consecutive two-point conversion tries, the second made necessary by a holding call on cornerback Casey Hayward.
A defense that struggled all day to stop the Titans on third down finally stopped them on the last call.
“A couple years ago, when we had a rough start and went (5-11), we would have lost those close games,” Hayward said. “We found a way to win.”
The 20-19 victory Sunday was their fourth in a row and sent them into their off week at 5-2. After starting last season with four consecutive defeats, this team is 14-5.
The Chargers hung on for their latest win despite Tennessee dominating the ball for long stretches, being without injured star Melvin Gordon and having every reason to crumble at the end.
“It shows you how far we’ve come over the years,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “Losing these tough games … losing close games over and over and over. We understand what’s going on now. We’re not rushing, not putting our backs against the wall because it’s a close game.”
In the final 82 seconds Sunday, the Titans snapped the ball from inside the Chargers’ 10-yard line six times and only once reached the end zone.
With their second two-point-conversion stop, the Chargers made it three straight games of holding the opposition below 20 points after allowing their first four opponents an average of 30 apiece.
“This team has a lot of grit,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “This is a tough football team. We emphasize it, and these guys go out and they execute it. They demonstrate it, I feel like, every single week.”
Even after his defense gave up the late touchdown, Lynn said he was certain Tennessee wouldn’t add the two-point conversion. Wide receiver Tyrell Williams said he was confident too, but also “definitely nervous.”
For several of the Chargers, the dire possibilities had to be hard not to consider.
“Last year, it seemed like all the close games, we were always losing by three, by five,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “So we were like, ‘Finally, thank you, good job.’”
Linebacker Denzel Perryman produced the game’s only turnover when he intercepted a Marcus Mariota pass that had been deflected by edge rusher Melvin Ingram.
The play came in the final minute of the second quarter and inside the Chargers’ 10-yard line, robbing the Titans of a key scoring chance.
The defense now has nine interceptions — four in the red zone — and 11 takeaways total. The offense has turned the ball over only six times.
“We haven’t given it away,” Lynn said. “So we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. That speaks to your toughness, the toughness of the football team. … We’ve taken care of the football. I expect us to keep taking care of the football.” Perryman returned the interception 16 yards, running through a couple Titans along the way, before being stopped.
Given the circumstances — late in the half, deep in his own territory — Perryman could have simply gone down on his own. But the idea apparently never occurred to him.
“My mindset was to catch and secure,” he explained. “My old Pop Warner running back days came out. That’s why I was able to get loose and break two tackles.”
Before Sunday, the Chargers hadn’t played a game that came down to the final seconds.
When they were finally pressed into that situation — inside a sold-out and clamorous Wembley Stadium — they responded to win.
“Everybody’s emotions were flying high on both sides of the ball,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “If they tell you they were calm, cool and collected, I believe they’re lying to you. Everybody’s emotions were flying.”
Phillips made the play that preserved the victory, tipping Mariota’s final pass to disrupt what the Titans were trying to do.
“At the end of the game like that, that’s when teams pull out everything, everything they’ve been working on since training camp,” Phillips added. “We just had to make sure we were on top of our checks.”
In a raucous and joyful postgame locker room, there was plenty of talking. Most notably, there was Hayward.
“No lie, if I’m the coach on the other side, I go for two, as well,” he said, referring to Mike Vrabel’s decision to shoot for the victory. “Why not? I’m coming to London to win.”
As for the late holding penalty against him…