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Front Page - Friday, January 24, 2020

Playoffs’ lesson: ‘Now guys know they can win’

Tennessee Titans’ offensive lineman Dennis Kelly celebrates after catching a touchdown pass during the first half of the NFL AFC Championship football game against Kansas City. - Photo by AP Photo/Jeff Roberson | AP Photo

The Tennessee Titans’ season came to an abrupt and conclusive end with Sunday’s 35-24 AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Such is the harsh reality of January football. But in their quest of going from “good to great,” – their words not mine – this group of Titans players and coaches say the 2019 season was not so much an end to a magical run but perhaps the beginning of bigger things and better expectations for a franchise that wandered 17 years in the wilderness between title game appearances.

“This is year two of (Mike) Vrabel’s program, Vrabel’s identity,’’ safety Kenny Vaccaro says. “Hopefully, we start garnering some respect for the way we work and the guys we have in this locker room and, if we don’t, we don’t. We’ll just keep doing what we do.

“It’s momentum, confidence. It’s what Vrabel preached that we have to have confidence and confirmed validity. This is confirmed validity that we can get to the AFC Championship that we can go on the road against the top-seeded teams in the NFL and make it here with no home-field advantage.”

While there are no guarantees of a return trip to the playoffs again in 2020, the Titans close the season as a much more confident squad than the one that started with a 2-4 record.

This Titans team seems to think that their postseason run wasn’t a one-off act but rather the opening of a window of opportunity.

“No, it doesn’t (start at zero again next year) because now guys know we can win. Before, nobody knew,” Vaccaro adds. “You’ve got young guys in this locker room that had never won anything before in their life. You have guys in here that had never made it to an AFC Championship. There are lots of teams that have really great records that have been sitting at home for two or three weeks.

“It starts at zero, technically,’’ he continues. “There’s lots of turnover, but as far as belief and knowing what we can do, that sticks in your mind. The confidence, that sticks. Knowing you can do it. You can beat America’s team (Patriots) and the Ravens, and come into Arrowhead and battle your (expletive) off.”

Vaccaro wasn’t the only Titans player espousing the closeness of the 2019 team and its resolve that the foundation for success has been laid.

“I think this is great to build off of,” says running back Derrick Henry, who carried the club down the stretch and in the postseason. “We definitely want to go all the way. It’s a big accomplishment to make it to the AFC Championship Game. It’s tough to do that in this league. Us being on the road throughout the playoffs and make it here, that’s a great thing to build off of.”

Left tackle Taylor Lewan adds that the buy-in in the locker room and in the organization is something to which the Titans can cling going forward.

“I’m excited about the Tennessee Titans. I’m excited about the future of this team,’’ Lewan says. “And if I had to give an opinion, I think fans should be, too. I love this team. I haven’t had camaraderie like this, I don’t think ever. I (expletive) love these guys.

“If you’re in the dance, you’re in the dance and you’ve got to buy in,’’ he continues. “You don’t make it an extra week in the playoffs just so you can play the divisional games and make your vacation shorter, right? You play this game to win a championship. You play this game because you love it. You play this game because you’re afraid of letting people down.

“There’s very few things that motivate you in football, and when you get an opportunity, when you’re four games away, three games away, two games away, one game away, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like going in each week and being an underdog and winning.”

As they walked out of Arrowhead Stadium to head into the offseason, the Titans know there is work ahead just to get back to this point, much less go beyond and take the next step. But it is a step they seem eager to take on the road ahead.

“We have to come back next year motivated to try to get to the Super Bowl. We were one game away. It’s disappointing, but at the end of the day, I’m thankful for all the believers we had,” safety Kevin Byard says.

Adds tight end Jonnu Smith, “It’s disappointing. You come this far and come up short. We’re going to keep working to be in the same position next year. That’s something to look forward to and put a smile on our face.”