Revenge games are commonplace in the New England dynasty.
Notable examples include pretty much any game involving the Indianapolis Colts or Baltimore Ravens for their (alleged) roles in blowing the whistle on DeflateGate. The New York Jets offered the same vitriol during Eric Mangini’s tenure as head coach, specifically when SpyGate hit, and it continued through the Rex Ryan years.
So how could it be that this week’s opponent, the Tennessee Titans, comes complete with more plot lines of vengeance than any other team New England plays during 2018?
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To be clear, the Patriots have no score to settle with the Titans, unless you want to hold it against them for making last year’s divisional playoff game one of the most forgettable New England playoff wins of the era.
This is all about what’s new in Tennessee this season – and what’s old in Foxboro. These Titans might not be better at all than the decrepit outfit that showed up to Gillette Stadium last January, but they boast a trio of new figures with direct ties to the Patriots.
Coaching Tennessee? Mike Vrabel. Lined up in the backfield for the Titans? Dion Lewis.
Hopefully lined up at cornerback, if he isn’t benched?
“Malcolm, go,” the order from then-safeties coach Brian Flores for Butler to enter the game in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX, easily could have been where the story of undrafted cornerback out of West Alabama began and ended: with a goal-line interception of Russell Wilson to seal the title for the Patriots.
Instead, Butler went on to earn Pro Bowl honors in his first season as a starter in 2015. He starred in a Visa commercial opposite Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Brown in 2016. A contract dispute in 2017 hardly took any shine off the Butler story, as he started 15 out of New England’s 16 regular season games that season, plus its first two playoff games prior to Super Bowl LII…
He did play one snap on the punt team vs. the Eagles, lest we forget, but it all signified Butler’s stunning rise in Foxboro would give way to an even more stunning conclusion.
Butler signed with the Titans in the off-season, securing a five-year, $61.25 million contract with $30 million guaranteed. As soon as schedules were released in April, New England’s Week 10 road trip to Nashville became appointment viewing.
Butler has struggled mightily in his first season as a Titan, giving up the fourth-most yards by any cornerback in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
Not that Bill Belichick cares.
“Statistically, Malcolm Butler has struggled a little bit,” one reporter quipped to Belichick during his media availability earlier Wednesday. “He’s allowing a great volume of catches. One scouting service says most by a cornerback in the NFL…”
“That means a lot to me,” Belichick deadpanned.
“Look, they lead the league in defense, OK?” Belichick continued.
It’s true. The 4-4 Titans are giving up the fewest points per game in the league, at 17.6. Tennessee may have snapped a three-game losing streak on Monday vs. the Cowboys, winning 28-14, but this team has a 13-12 loss to the Bills on its résumé at this juncture.
This game is all about the drama, nothing more for the Patriots prior to their conveniently-timed bye week.
Belichick made it through his entire 15-minute press conference without speaking the words “Malcolm” or “Butler.” If you’re keeping score, he mentioned Vrabel by name seven times and Lewis twice.
Several of Butler’s teammates said they’ve been in contact with him since he departed for Nashville, including fellow cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones.
“He’s a great player, great competitor,” Gilmore said. “Great person, too, so I’m happy for him.”
“Not about the game, but there’s been communication,” Jones confirmed.
No one offered any further clues as to why Butler’s solitary snap in the Super Bowl came on special teams on Wednesday, meaning one of history’s greatest mysteries lives on. It’s sure to come up again on Sunday.
Lewis, like so many other players through the years, left New England on somewhat of a sour note via free agency. He told Ben Volin of the Boston Globe in August that if the Patriots wanted him back, they could have. He signed a four-year deal with the Titans in March.
“But obviously, they didn’t want me,” Lewis said. “They didn’t think I was good enough to be there. I just had to move on and do what’s best for me.”
Things didn’t exactly end great for Vrabel in Foxboro, either. He was thrown in as part of the Matt Cassel trade to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for a second-round draft pick following the 2008 season – a pick which turned into Patrick Chung – and admitted he didn’t talk with Belichick for a long stretch afterward.
“We didn’t talk for a couple of months, maybe a year,” Vrabel recalled in front of Tennessee media earlier this week. “Then we became friends and I used him as a resource when I started my coaching career and still talk to him now.”
The Titans also boast Logan Ryan and Josh Kline on their roster, Dean Pees as defensive coordinator and Jon Robinson as General Manager, all via Foxboro.
The grudge factor will be strong on Sunday, the saltiness leading to some much-needed spice in an otherwise lackluster matchup.