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Sunday’s obvious story line is Mike Vrabel vs. Bill Belichick, but that’s not the way Vrabel sees it

Titans coach Mike Vrabel on Sunday's game: “It’s a great challenge. It’s not about me or Bill.”Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel wanted to make at least one thing clear ahead of Sunday’s Patriots-Titans showdown at Gillette Stadium: The focus should not be on him and Bill Belichick.

“Bill and I aren’t going to do anything physically to determine the outcome,” Vrabel said. “It’s a great challenge. It’s not about me or Bill.”

Vrabel and Belichick have faced each other twice as head coaches. Their most recent meeting — Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot — took place in January 2020, when the Titans visited Gillette Stadium for a wild-card matchup and muscled their way to a 20-13 victory thanks to 182 rushing yards from Derrick Henry.


Vrabel also won the other meeting, as the Titans upset the Patriots at Nissan Stadium in November 2018. Henry rushed for two touchdowns and quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for two more en route to a 34-10 victory.

But Vrabel doesn’t want his head-to-head record against Belichick to steal any of the spotlight. Nor does he want his history with the Patriots to dominate the conversation. Vrabel spent eight of his 14 NFL seasons playing linebacker for Belichick, winning three Super Bowls.

“Obviously, the tradition and history are not going to win or lose the game for anybody,” Vrabel said. “I think we all know where the banners are and the success that that organization has had over the last 20 years.”

Instead, Vrabel put the focus on the present: The AFC-leading Titans will have their hands full with a surging Patriots team riding a five-game winning streak.

The relationship between Bill Belichick and Mike Vrabel goes back to when Vrabel was a Patriots' linebacker from 2001 until 2008.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Vrabel had plenty of nice things to say about the Patriots’ defense, praising their linebackers, specifically Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, for their ability to rush, cover, and set the edge. He also complimented the secondary for being able to reroute receivers and take advantage of overthrows. The unit has created 13 turnovers in its past five games.


Vrabel extended the nice words to the offense, too, calling rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the passing attack efficient and well-coached. He said the Patriots are running the football as well as any team in the league right now, highlighting their physicality.

What can the Titans do to put themselves in a position to win?

“I think what will win or lose the game is playing sound, fundamental football, taking care of the football, [limiting] penalties, and playing with great technique,” Vrabel said. “That’s really what they’ve done. It’s been impressive over the last five weeks.”

It’s hard to keep the focus entirely away from Vrabel and Belichick.

Even Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith, who played for Vrabel for three seasons in Tennessee, said the two are similar in their coaching styles. Asked to describe his experience playing for Vrabel, Smith said, “A lot like this guy,” referring to Belichick.

“They demand a lot out of their players, as any great coach should, wanting them to be the best and demand their best every snap,” Smith said. “You can’t ask for a better coach than that. He knows his stuff.”

Vrabel did acknowledge that Belichick has influenced his coaching style, namely the emphasis on fundamentals and accountability.

Mike Vrabel and Bill Belichick shake hands after a New England-Tennessee game in 2018.Mark Zaleski/FR170793 AP via AP

“I’ve learned a lot in eight years there,” he said. “You have good experiences throughout life; you try to take some of those things with you as you move on.”


Still, while he shared his respect for the coaching staff and organization, Vrabel made sure to turn the focus to those on the field.

“Bill and I won’t be squaring off to determine this game,” he said. “This is a game that will be won, like it always is, by the players.”

Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.