FOXBOROUGH, Mass. –** The Titans made positive steps in 2017, earning a postseason berth for the first time since 2008, and winning a playoff game for the first time in 14 years.
But here at Gillette Stadium, that was little consolation for the Titans on a night when their season came to an end.
While players found reasons to be optimistic moving forward, their current mood was draped in disappointment.
"You don't play to come and lose in the divisional playoffs,'' Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "You play to go win the whole thing. … Yeah, it is nice to get in the playoffs, but you don't play to just get in, especially to lose the way that we did."
After jumping out to an early lead, the Titans couldn't keep up with the Patriots the rest of the way. The team's offense struggled to get anything going after a nice start, and the defense couldn't slow down the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.
The end result was a 35-14 season-ending loss.
Still, players saw reasons to be encouraged. The Titans posted back-to-back 9-7 seasons after going just 5-27 the previous two years.
"I'm so proud of these guys," linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "We checked off a lot of things on our checklist. I am definitely disappointed in this game, but I am proud of how far we've come. We used to be the armpit of the NFL, but we've come a long way. I am proud of this team and this is definitely something to build on moving forward."
Titans coach Mike Mularkey called the season, and the challenge against the Patriots, "a really good experience."
"They get a little taste of what it is to be in big games against really good football teams," Mularkey said. "And you know, I have said it before, I have said it all week—you can't make mistakes against a really good football team. They are waiting on you to do it and we accommodated them with a lot of mistakes offensively and then we couldn't get off the field defensively. But it was a good experience, we had a lot of young guys playing in a really big game and it will go a long way for them.
"I am just very proud of them," Mularkey continued. "Very proud, there were a lot of good things we did this year. Probably won't hear about it, but they did. They did a lot of good things and I hate for it to come to an end. I did say that. It was a good story being written and I'm sorry that it had to end like it did."
Mariota completed 22-of-37 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but he was sacked eight times in the contest. Mularkey said after the contest that Mariota suffered a strained quad in the first quarter, but Mariota wasn't using it as an excuse.
Running back Derrick Henry managed just 28 yards on 12 carries for the Titans.
Rookie receiver Corey Davis finished with five catches for 63 yards, and two touchdowns.
Brady, meanwhile, completed 35-of-53 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns in the contest.
The Titans took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to Davis, who made a one-handed catch in the end zone. It capped an 11-play, 95-yard drive that started on Tennessee's five-yard line.
It was the first career touchdown catch for Davis, who beat Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler on the play. Davis later scored again.
The Patriots answered back on their next possession, however, scoring on a five-yard touchdown pass from Brady to running back James White to make it 7-7 with 13:18 left in the second quarter.
The Patriots then took a 14-7 lead on a six-yard touchdown run by White, which capped off a six-play, 48-yard drive in 1:56.
Then came the really big momentum – and officiating -- switch, which enabled the Patriots to extend their lead to 21-7 late in the second quarter on a four-yard touchdown pass from Brady to receiver Chris Hogan.
Early on that drive, after the Titans had stopped the Patriots on three downs at their own 14, New England was called for a false start while lining up to punt on fourth-and-five. But officials later changed the call to a neutral zone infraction on Titans safety Brynden Trawick. The Patriots kept the ball, and put together a 16-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a touchdown.
"The side judge called (a false start), and then the back judge calls a neutral zone infraction. How is the back judge going to call that?," Trawick said. "It is what it is, but that was a big play."
In a pool report, referee Ron Torbert provided this explanation:
"The line judge saw a defensive lineman jump into the neutral zone, did not see the guard across from him move," Torbert said. "The umpire saw the guard move and threw his flag for a false start, which is what we initially announced. When we got together and discussed it and pieced together that the defensive lineman across from the guard jumped in the neutral zone and caused the false start, that's when we changed the ruling from a false start to a neutral zone infraction."
The Titans, who advanced to the AFC divisional round with a come-from-behind win at Kansas City last weekend, never really threatened the rest of the way.
The Patriots stretched the lead to 28-7 on a two-yard touchdown run by Brandon Bolden with 4:02 left in the clock. The Patriots added another score on a four-yard touchdown pass from Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski with 10:22 left.
Davis scored his second touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Mariota with 1:55 left, which made it 35-14.
The Titans were scheduled to fly back to Nashville after the game.
Before walking out of the locker room, Henry yelled "The Titans will be back. We will be back."
But it will be a different team in 2018, with plenty of new faces.
That's life in the NFL.
"Most definitely this season was a success," tight end Delanie Walker said. "Nobody thought we would be this far, playing in the divisional playoffs. I am pleased to be in this locker room, playing with these guys, who fought very hard.
"It is really sad it ended. We had 18 games together, a lot of hard work, and it ended this way. It is sad. But I am going to stay in touch with these guys and I know we are going to bring in some new pieces -- that is like any year. Anyone who can help this team out I am looking forward to seeing who we get."
The Tennessee Titans take on the New England Patriots in an AFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 at Gillette Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)