MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The 2019 Titans reenergized the city of Nashville, winning playoff games and igniting celebrations in living rooms and bars across Music City and beyond.
By winning playoff games against the Patriots and Ravens, they exceeded the expectations of most observers across the country, and even some of their most ardent fans.
But ultimately, these Titans fell short of the ultimate goal – to get to Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium, and to win it.
Here on Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 to earn the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
The 2019 NFL season now officially complete, the focus can now shift to the 2020 season, and the quest to get to Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Can the Titans get there?
"Well, we'll see," long-time NFL reporter John Clayton said. "I do feel like the Titans are heading in the right direction, but some things are going to have to happen. I was impressed with what they were able to do this year. It's obvious players believe in (coach) Mike Vrabel, and he coaches them well. I like what they are doing. But ask me again in a few months. We'll know a lot more about them obviously by what happens coming up."
The Titans finished 9-7 for the fourth straight year in 2019, and their wins at New England and Baltimore put them in the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, where they lost 35-24.
On Saturday, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after leading the NFL in passer rating and running back Derrick Henry was selected as the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Year after leading the league in rushing.
But Henry and Tannehill are among roughly 20 players scheduled to become free agents.
"Obviously they have to figure out a way to keep their key offensive guys," Peter King of NBC Sports said in the press box before Sunday's game at Hard Rock Stadium. "They have to find some way to not have Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill make so much money that it cripples them on other parts of the roster. They are going to have to pay an absolutely premium if they're going to keep (Jack) Conklin, and he'll probably be worth it. We'll see what happens with him. The other thing is, (cornerback) Logan Ryan is really valuable (and he's going to be a free agent). He is not Richard Sherman valuable, but he is really, really valuable. … I hope they can find a way to keep him.
"There's work they have to do. Overall, I think the best thing about that team is that it is young, leadership is good, and they know they have a great chance ahead of them. Free agency is an odd time. You don't know how they are going to be standing at the end of it, so we'll see."
King pointed to the 49ers as a source of inspiration for teams across the NFL, including the Titans.
"I think the 49ers did a great service for the NFL and for every team that is remotely close," King said. "Basically, after having an injury at the quarterback position and going 4-12 last year, they make it to the Super Bowl. I think what the Titans did, it wasn't an injury obviously, but it was a transition at quarterback (from Marcus Mariota to Tannehill), and the transition went well."
Tom Curran, with NBC Sports Boston, covered Vrabel during his playing days with the Patriots.
He was also on hand for Tennessee's 20-13 Wild Card victory over the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., last month.
Curran thinks the Titans "are just getting started."
"This year's Titans reminded me a lot of the 2001 Patriots, in that it was a-whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts team, and they had better parts than the '01 Patriots," Curran said. "They switched the quarterback out, albeit under different circumstances, but they got the kind of bump that was necessary. And I think what impressed me about them is they understood exactly what needed to be done against certain opponents and with players, that gives you the kind of buy-in you're going to get for your head coach from a team, and you're going to get with Vrabel. He put players in a position to win games. The team has his imprint on it because he is decisive and fearless and he has a touch of arrogance to him that I think makes you say, 'I believe this is going to work', which infuses a whole team.
"I think there's a ton of upside with the Titans."
Clayton, for one, believes the AFC teams with the young quarterbacks – Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes), Baltimore (Lamar Jackson) and Houston (Deshaun Watson) – are "going to be the teams the Titans are going to have to worry about."
What happens with quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots, of course, will also have a big bearing in the NFL's landscape.
Prior to Super Bowl LIV, Clayton said the Titans "need to make sure that K.C. wins the Super Bowl, because it is hard to repeat."
The Chiefs rallied from a fourth quarter deficit to win it, and it marked the second year in a row the Titans beat the eventual Super Bowl champion in the regular season. The Titans beat New England during the 2018 regular season before the Patriots went on to win Super Bowl LIII.
Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, an analyst with FOX, said he expects the Titans to continue their momentum from 2019 in 2020.
"I am not surprised by anything that's happened (with the Titans), and they'll be back," Aikman said. "They were in the AFC Championship Game and they have a bullet going into next year. I like them."
Former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck, on Super Bowl Radio Row this week, said he's hopeful the Titans can take the next step.
The countdown to Super Bowl LV is now under way.
"I am definitely looking forward to the next step," Bulluck said. "When Mike Mularkey left, they were 9-7 and a playoff team, and Mike Vrabel takes over and they were on the cusp (in 2018) and this year … they go to the AFC Championship Game. Obviously, they are a team to be reckoned with, a playoff team.
"But I want to see that next step, when they become that 13-3 team or that 12-4 team where they show that consistency throughout the entire season. It's one thing to be a scrappy, gritty team, which they are, and go against any team every Sunday. But I want to see them get to the point where teams are coming into Nissan Stadium or the Titans are going into their stadium and they are looking at them like, 'Alright, we've got the Titans this week.' I am sure they think that already, but it's a little different when you know you are playing a scrappy team than when you know you are playing a juggernaut."