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FOXBOROUGH — Still in his game pants, Patriots safety Terrence Brooks sat in the chair facing his locker and stared straight ahead.
To his left, fellow defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty had already showered and started getting dressed. Elsewhere in the quiet locker room, rookie defensive end Chase Winovich had tied back his bleached platinum blonde locks. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 4, stopped to chat with linebacker Kyle Van Noy on his way out. Wide receiver Julian Edelman was nowhere to be found.
But Brooks, with eye black smudged on his cheeks, lingered.
While equipment staffers hastily filtered through the silence, picking up used towels and stray sweaty gear, Brooks continued to sit and stare. He lowered his head in his hands, likely trying to process what exactly just happened at Gillette Stadium.
In their first wild-card playoff game since 2009, the Patriots lost. They couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone, settling for two red-zone field goals in the first half, which proved to be the difference in the outcome. The sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans, behind a 182-yard rushing performance from birthday boy Derrick Henry, left New England with a 20-13 victory and a ticket to Baltimore for a divisional-round matchup next weekend.
So, what went wrong?
“We just didn’t make enough plays,’’ coach Bill Belichick said following the defeat.
Culpable in two pivotal moments, Brooks was certainly among those wishing to have a few snaps back. After entering the game for an injured Patrick Chung on Tennessee’s opening drive, Brooks immediately gave up a 12-yard touchdown to Titans tight end (and Harvard product) Anthony Firkser. Perhaps more egregious was allowing an 11-yard completion, again to Firkser, on third and 8 with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Had New England’s defense come up with a stop, the Titans would have been forced to punt from their own 15-yard line. The Patriots, then trailing, 14-13 ,would have regained possession with an opportunity to notch the go-ahead score. Instead, the Titans were able to eat more of the clock before punting with 25 seconds remaining.
A sullen Brooks declined multiple requests to speak to reporters following the loss.
His teammates tried to articulate their heavy postgame feelings.
“I actually can’t even describe it,’’ said running back James White. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s really over and whatnot. I don’t know the words for it, honestly.’’
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go home,’’ said receiver Phillip Dorsett. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I mean, there’s a lot that’s going through my head right now.’’
As more and more lockers shuttered, Brooks slowly trudged to the showers. When he returned to his chair in a towel, he alternated between sitting with his head down and staring straight ahead. He eventually began to get dressed, his every motion seeming laborious.
Once in his hoodie and jeans — fittingly, both were black — Brooks grabbed his white Nike high tops from his locker’s top shelf only to sit back down with his head in his hands. Keeping his hood up, he rubbed his face once again, hanging his head.
The clock was several ticks past midnight. Nearly every player was gone.
Across the room, the other straggler was captain Matthew Slater, who delivered an eloquent message all, including Brooks, should hear.
Said Slater: “Our football team all year long has been heavily scrutinized, as it is every year. People are always ready to make declarations about our team. Declare us, ‘dead,’ or whatever it may be. I think it’s important as men, as we live life, to refrain from seeking the approval from men. If you seek the approval of other people, you’re always going to be disappointed.
“It’s never going to be good enough. No matter what you do, someone’s going to question your ability, your why, your what. They’re going to question how you did it, if you can do it, and that’s just going to leave you frustrated and lost.
“I encourage these men to stand firm in their identity because they know who they are. They know the things that they stand for, the things that they hope to represent. They know the people they represent love them and care for them, and they know the people that don’t. I don’t think you can let people who you have little to no interaction with affect how you live your life or how you view your circumstances.
“As we leave here, there will be a lot of noise surrounding a lot of people in here, as there always has been. But it shouldn’t impact the way these men go about and operate their lives. I hope that they do that. I hope that they stand on their own two feet and are confident in who they are and move forward.’’
Slater stayed behind a bit longer, but Brooks, in time, put on his sneakers and solemnly made his way out of the locker room.
At some point after the game, Brooks temporarily deactivated his Instagram page, perhaps to limit his exposure to the critical commentary awaiting him from Patriots fans. No matter what is said on the Internet, however, Brooks was by no means solely responsible for New England’s early postseason exit.
“The reality is, it’s going to end like this for all but one team,’’ Slater said. “Unfortunately, this year, we’re not that team.’’