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VOL. 44 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 3, 2020

Has Vrabel taken Titans to next level? Only if they top Patriots

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Mike Vrabel was hired to make the Titans a better franchise. So far, he has two 9-7 teams to show for his efforts, the same record his predecessor had in his final two seasons.

-- Photo By James Kenney | Ap Photo

When the Tennessee Titans dismissed Mike Mularkey two years ago following a 9-7 season and a playoff win, the reason given was that general manager Jon Robinson wanted someone who could take the club to a higher level.

In other words, a team that could not only reach the postseason but make a deep run once it got there.

While Mularkey’s Titans of 2017 went to Kansas City and upset the Chiefs in the wild-card round, they quickly proved to be no match in the divisional round for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. The Titans lost 35-14 and after posting a 7-0 lead on Corey Davis’ first NFL touchdown. The Patriots then scored 35 unanswered points.

Enter Mike Vrabel, who was tasked with the assignment of getting the Titans to a championship level, something Robinson had no faith that Mularkey’s staff could do.

There have been numerous ups and downs in Vrabel’s two seasons, and the Titans’ regular-season record has not changed. The Tennessee finished 9-7 both years and for the fourth consecutive season.

Thanks to New England’s stunning upset loss to Miami on Sunday, the Titans will get the opportunity to see how far they have come when they play the six-time Super Bowl champions in Foxboro on Saturday night (7:15 p.m., CBS).

While the record is still the same for the Titans, much has changed since that January 2018 playoff drubbing. For that matter, much has changed since the Patriots visited Nashville this summer for two days of joint practices ahead of an August preseason game.

For starters, a reborn Ryan Tannehill has emerged as the Titans starting quarterback, dislodging Marcus Mariota, who was still in make or break mode for a contract extension when the Patriots last laid eyes on the Titans.

Tannehill has solidified the quarterback position in a way that almost no one could have envisioned when he was acquired as a backup in the offseason.

There’s also rookie A.J. Brown, who was nursing a hamstring injury when New England was at Saint Thomas Sports Park. He has emerged as the receiving threat the Titans have not had in more than a decade.

As for the Patriots, they are not the dominate team of years past. They finished 12-4, but the 42-year-old Brady has been showing his age. He finished the season ranked 19th among NFL quarterbacks with a rating of 88.5.

Who’s the top-rated quarterback, you might ask? Tanneyhill at 117.5. Brady does have two more touchdown passes (24) than Tanneyhill this season.

It could be good for the Titans that they have plenty of familiarity with the Patriots.

It worked last year when they handed the Pats a 34-10 defeat in October at Nissan Stadium.

But the playoffs are a completely different scenario, and no doubt facing the winningest Super Bowl coach and quarterback of all time is a daunting task.

No one is more familiar with the inner workings of the Patriots than the Titans. Robinson cut his teeth in the Patriots organization. Vrabel played on three Super Bowl winners in New England, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees spent six seasons with the Pats, including four as Belichick’s defensive coordinator.

Logan Ryan and Dion Lewis played for the Patriots. Tannehill knows them well, too, having faced New England twice a year during his time in Miami.

While connections between the Titans and Patriots are numerous, it really all comes down to Vrabel, who has overcome his share of coaching growing pains to get the Titans back to the postseason after a one-year absence.

This is a referendum on the decision that Robinson made two years ago to jettison Mularkey and go with Vrabel as his head coach.

This weekend, we will find out just how much effect that decision has had on the organization to this point.

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