Jason Wolf and Joe Rexrode recap the loss to the Patriots.
Autumn Allison|USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are really good, they destroyed the Titans 35-14 Saturday night in a playoff game at Gillette Stadium, they’ll probably win it all again and we’ll get to them in a minute.
But first, let’s talk about the feelings of Titans fans as this season ends. They still should feel good about the first postseason for this franchise in nine years and the first win – last week’s 22-21 comeback thriller at Kansas City – in 14. And they should be furious at the way Saturday’s opportunity was both taken away and squandered.
This could have been a game. Some kind of game, anyway. A half game? Something better than what it was. If you saw it, you know it.
“I think if we had another crack at it, we’d do it a lot better. I really believe that,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said after the season ended with 10 wins and eight losses. “Some uncharacteristic mistakes by some key guys.”
The Titans got the start they wanted, stops on the Pats’ first two possessions and a superb 95-yard drive engineered by Marcus Mariota and finished with a 15-yard, one-handed touchdown catch by receiver Corey Davis. They could not keep stopping the Tom Brady machine, because no one does, but it was 7-7 when Mariota zipped one to receiver Eric Decker for a conversion on third-and-14 … called back for pass interference.
Replay revealed a bad call, one coach Mike Mularkey said will “go down in history.”
But you know what? Those happen, and Pats corner Malcolm Butler sold the push-off well. The bigger problem – the fatal problem – came when it was 14-7 Pats in the second quarter, and they were punting from their own 14 and called for a false start. So now they would punt from their 9 … except the officials reversed the call and flagged Tennessee’s Brynden Trawick for encroachment, giving the Pats a first down.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry kept reminding his teammates that the team will make it back to the playoffs following the loss to the Patriots.
Autumn Allison|USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee
And it was a terrible call, made worse by the fact that the correct call was initially made. Trawick flinched but did not cross until the offensive player moved first. As annoying as all the conspiracy-screaming Pats haters can be, this one was made for them. And of course Brady took advantage by driving his team down the field to make it 21-7.
Other calls and non-calls fed the screamers, and NFL officiating simply can’t be this bad. That doesn’t mean the Pats didn’t earn this win. They eventually asserted themselves and left no doubt. The Titans did not respond well; they shrunk in the moment. Mariota said he was “embarrassed” by the performance and added that he didn’t think the Titans played a “complete” game all season.
“You don’t play to come lose in the divisional playoff,” he said. “You come to play to go win the whole thing.”
The first-quarter loss of right tackle Jack Conklin to a knee injury was big, and so was a quad injury that limited Mariota’s mobility, but it doesn’t explain the offensive line’s utter inability to protect him.
“We accommodated them with a lot of mistakes,” Mularkey said of the Patriots.
And it doesn’t absolve the Titans’ coaches. Yes, there’s enough room in this column to switch from complaining about the refs to complaining about Mularkey and Co.
It was 21-7 and Mariota was moving his team down the field late in the first half. He took off on a third-down scramble for 9 yards to the Pats’ 46 – he actually might have picked up the first down, per the replay, but that’s right, no more ref shaming – and the Titans called their last timeout with 25 seconds left.
So they were out of field-goal range. Out of timeouts. They decided to go for it, which was the right call even though they didn’t get it and the Pats ended up moving into range for a missed 53-yard Stephen Gostkowski try – which was possible because the NFL timekeeper went quick trigger to leave them a second (sorry, that’s it on the officials, you have my word!)
But the Titans called a Derrick Henry run on the play. So even if they got it (Henry bounced it outside and was buried), they still would have been out of field-goal range, with a pile of bodies on the field and the clock running, hurrying to line up to spike the ball. And that would have left time for a throw that would have had to get out of bounds for the Titans to have any chance at a field goal.
If you’re going there, you have to throw there. You have to think clock. It was bad game management, and it sure wasn’t the first time this season, so the offseason can begin with a fresh round of screaming about Mularkey as well.
And Brady and Bill Belichick can move along to the AFC title game and the continued pursuit of their sixth Super Bowl title together since 2001. The narrative after this one will be of a team angered and unified by an ESPN report of fracturing within the organization.
But that just looked like the same old Patriots to me. A championship team that buries opponents at the first sign of surrender. A team that does not need any help.
Reach Joe Rexrode at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.