NASHVILLE, Tenn. —** On the first day of 2017, the Titans ended the 2016 season a high note.
The team's 24-17 victory over the Houston Texans gave the franchise its first winning season since 2011. It also closed out a season when the Titans matched the largest single-season turnaround in franchise history.
The Titans finished 9-7, a year after ending the 2015 season with a 3-13 mark.
"Obviously it is a really good feeling,'' Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "But still disappointed we are not playing (next week). Feel a little bit empty here that we don't have a chance to keep going after today. That's just a lesson learned, but very proud of these guys. … There's a lot of accomplishments that I know took place."
While no one was satisfied with the end result – the Texans will represent the AFC South as the division winner in the playoffs – it's impossible to deny the progress made in 2016, Mularkey's first full season on the job.
The Titans finished the season 5-3 at Nissan Stadium, where they ended the year with four straight wins. They finished second in the division behind the Texans, ahead of the Indianapolis Colts (8-8) and Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13).
After a 1-3 start, the Titans ended the season with wins in eight of their final 12 games. The Titans posted wins over six teams with winning records, and five teams headed to the playoffs -- the Dolphins, Chiefs, Packers, Lions and Texans. They also beat the Broncos (9-7), the defending Super Bowl champs.
But in some ways, that makes the final outcome even worse.
"We feel that it should be us that's going into the postseason and it's not,'' receiver Rishard Matthews said, "so that will light the fire this offseason."
"It is going to be hard for me to sit back and watch the playoffs, seeing the teams we beat still playing,'' linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "I think we definitely got the respect of the league, the way we competed, the way we hustled all year. We won nine games, and have five Pro Bowlers. The Titans are relevant again. But we wanted more."
Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, who had two sacks on Sunday, said the team played mad on Sunday – because the team ended the season angry. If not for a loss last week in Jacksonville, the Titans would be focusing on a playoff game next weekend at Nissan Stadium.
Instead, players will gather for a final team meeting on Monday, and go their separate ways for the offseason. Some won't return, while plenty of new faces will be added to the roster.
"I won't be able to appreciate what we did this season until 2017, when we are sitting in the playoffs,'' Casey said. "This season is over. At 9-7, you are still a loser and you didn't make it to the Super Bowl, and that is every team except the one that wins. There is only one winner in this thing and everyone else is a loser. 9-7 is a winning record, but you are still a loser. No one is satisfied. I feel like if you don't win the Super Bowl, everybody is a loser. 9-7 is not good enough and that has to be the mindset."
The Titans took care of business on Sunday.
Quarterback Matt Cassel, playing in place of an injured Marcus Mariota, completed 16-of-26 passes for 150 yards with a touchdown and an interception on Sunday.
Running back Derrick Henry led the Titans with 65 yards on 15 carries, and a two-yard touchdown run. DeMarco Murray finished with 21 yards on 11 carries. Murray ended the year as the AFC's leading rusher with 1,287 yards on the season.
"Obviously that's a credit to the offensive line and this team as a whole,'' Murray said. "But we play to win games and make it to the playoffs and we didn't accomplish that this year."
Matthews had a team-high nine catches for 114 yards, and a touchdown. He had a 50-yard catch that also set up another score.
The Titans had four sacks on defense, including two by Casey.
The Titans started with a bang – on defense.
Linebacker Sean Spence forced a fumble when he sacked Texans quarterback Tom Savage, and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown to give the Titans a 7-0 lead with 9:57 remaining in the first quarter.
It was part of an impressive early showing by the Titans defense. In the second quarter, safety Daimion Stafford sacked Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler on fourth down to end another drive. Osweiler replaced Savage early in the second quarter after the starter left while being checked for a concussion, and he finished the game.
The Titans jumped out to a 14-0 lead when Cassel completed a two-yard touchdown pass to Matthews with just 23 seconds left before the half. It gave Matthews his ninth touchdown of the season.
The Titans held the Texans to just 57 yards of total offense in the first half, and to only six first downs.
The Texans drove the length of the field to start the second half, however, and capped off the 13-play drive with a four-yard touchdown pass from Osweiler to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, which made it 14-7.
But the Titans quickly answered back, driving 55 yards on 10 plays and capping it off with a two-yard touchdown run by Henry, who picked up 30 yards on the drive on his own. The touchdown stretched the lead back to 21-7 with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
The Texans then cut it to 21-10 on a 26-yard field goal by Novak, but the Titans answered back with a 35-yard field goal from kicker Ryan Succop to make it 24-10.
The Texans cut the lead to 24-17 on a one-yard touchdown run by Osweiler with 3:11 left. The Titans held the Texans on their final possession, and celebrated the win.
Mariota congratulated his teammates for their effort, and players applauded one another for finishing in style.
No, it wasn't the ending anyone wanted.
But a number of Titans recognized the positive steps made in 2017.
"We have an identity now,'' linebacker Derrick Morgan said. "Everyone knows what we are, and we did a good job of accomplishing that this year. It is a great transformation that happened here. From last year, being the bottom of the barrel to a winning record this year. It was a great turnaround. We didn't get to the playoffs, but it doesn't really negate what took place this year and I think we have a lot to be proud of. We have a lot to build on."
Tight end Delanie Walker agreed.
"The way this team fought, I am very happy about the way everything went down,'' Walker said. "I appreciate it today. The one-year turnaround we had, it's beautiful. Everyone outside of Nashville has to notice what the Titans are doing. This is a team that's on the way up."
The Tennessee Titans take on the Houston Texans in Week 17 action at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)