Former Patriots defensive star Mike Vrabel matches wits with Bill Belichick for the first time and looks to post a much-needed victory when the Tennessee Titans host the red-hot Patriots in Nashville.
New England (7-2) has won four games by two touchdowns or more since former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia coached the Detroit Lions to a convincing 26-10 win in Week 3. The latest victory was a solid 31-17 performance against the Green Bay Packers.
"I still don't think we've played our best football yet," Patriots running back James White said. "We're still working, still trying to improve, especially as an offense. We can be better."
New England may have to be in top form against the Titans (4-4), who lead the league in scoring defense (17.6 points per game) and rank eighth in total defense (333.5 yards per game).
Tennessee's defensive success isn't a surprise to Belichick, who always was impressed by Vrabel's intelligence and tenacity during the eight seasons he coached him.
"Mike's got a lot of great qualities -- great player, tough mentally and physically, smart, had a real passion for the game, was in great condition, could go all day, loved to play, loved to practice, great leadership," Belichick told reporters of the first-year Tennessee coach. "So I have a ton of respect for Mike and I think he's been a great (assistant) coach. I think he'll be a great head coach."
Vrabel initially had hard feelings after the Patriots traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 season but credits Belichick for having a huge impact on why he became a coach -- first at Ohio State and later with the Houston Texans.
"I used him as a resource when I started my coaching career and still talk to him a lot now," Vrabel told reporters. "This week we are competitors -- we are always competitors, as I am still coaching and so is he.
"... I think that spending time there, there are some similarities that I believe in and you grow up as a player believing in. But we have a different personality. ... I respect his friendship and respect his guidance and leadership when I played there."
The Patriots are averaging 30 points per game -- fourth in the NFL -- but could be without tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle/back) and impressive rookie running back Sony Michel (knee). The status of both will be determined later in the week. Gronkowski (29 receptions for 448 yards and one touchdown) missed the victory over the Packers and Michel (422 yards) has sat out the last two games. Michel is expected to play barring a setback in practice.
Quarterback Tom Brady continues to perform well no matter who is on the field. The 41-year-old has thrown for 2,494 yards and 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Titans signal caller Marcos Mariota is impressed with Brady's continued dominance.
"He's done an incredible job and I think he has kind of laid the blueprint out for a lot of young guys," Mariota told reporters. "When you are playing into your 40s, I think it says a lot about how he is taking care of his body, how he has done it. Because the lifespan in the NFL is so short, so for him to exceed that and more says a lot about what he has done."
Tennessee cornerback Malcolm Butler gets to play against his former team of four seasons for the first time. Butler was infamously benched for the Super Bowl last February when the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Belichick had no interest in fielding a question about Butler and instead discussed the Tennessee defense.
Butler didn't have a lot to say.
"It's just a game," Butler said. "I know I used to play for New England and all of that. I'm not over-hyped, I'm not very pumped. It's just another game. I've got to be ready to play no matter who I play."