FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson fired coach Mike Mularkey after the team lost to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs during the 2017 season, he leaned on his past to plot a course for the Nashville franchise's future.
Five days later, Robinson — who got his NFL start as a scout with the Patriots from 2002 to 2013 — hired Mike Vrabel as coach. The defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans at the time, Vrabel was also a former NFL linebacker who won three Super Bowl rings during his eight seasons playing for New England.
With former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan already on Tennessee's roster, Vrabel added more players and staff with ties to New England. That included former Patriots assistant Dean Pees as his defensive coordinator, running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler — the savior of New England's 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX to end the 2014 season.
It seemed like a transparent effort to plant seeds in Tennessee of New England coach Bill Belichick's disciplined, team-first "do your job" culture that has come to be known as "the Patriot way."
"Isn't that the street the movie theater is on?" Vrabel joked this week when asked what the saying meant to him.
Two seasons later, the efforts of Robinson and Vrabel, combined with a boost from former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill — a nemesis to the Patriots during his long tenure in the AFC East — have culminated in a wild-card playoff game Saturday against the franchise the Titans appear to be striving to emulate.
True or not, Vrabel said the ties between the teams weren't on his mind as the Titans (9-7) prepared for the 8:15 p.m. matchup at New England (12-4), which will be televised by CBS.
"This isn't about my career, my eight years in New England," said Vrabel, who coached the Titans to a 34-10 win over New England in Nashville during the 2018 regular season and was part of another reunion when the teams held joint practices before facing off in a preseason game this past August.
"This is about the Titans and our preparation to go up there and face a team that's won three Super Bowls in the last five years," Vrabel continued. "They're 8-0 at home (in the playoffs) in that span. They've got the No. 1 defense, they've got the best coach, they've got the best quarterback, so it's quite a challenge."
The Patriots will face one of the hottest teams heading into the postseason. The Titans — with the help of league-leading rusher Derrick Henry — won seven of their final 10 games to earn their second playoff berth in three seasons but their first under Vrabel, and they got some good news about the health of their roster this week.
Ryan was drafted by the Patriots in 2013 and spent the first four seasons of his career in New England, winning Super Bowls to cap the 2014 and 2016 seasons. He said he has carried lessons from his time with the Patriots that stick with him.
"It's a new season, and we have to play well on Saturday. That's the one thing I learned from being a Patriot. It doesn't matter what you did, it doesn't matter if it's 'On to Cincinnati' or whatever it may be," Ryan said, referencing one of Belichick's favorite postgame responses.
"It's one game at a time in the playoffs. You've got to give all you got. It's not a best-of-seven (series), it's not a best-of-five."
New England's run of AFC East titles continued with its 11th straight, but a division loss to Miami to close the regular season relegated the Patriots to playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009, when they lost 33-14 to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots are 2-1 in wild-card games under Belichick and that "best quarterback," Tom Brady, but New England never has made it to the Super Bowl without a playoff bye during the B&B era.
"We have a chance to go on a revenge tour," Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. "What better way than to start out with Tennessee, who we lost to last year. It's a big motivation. We weren't happy about our performance. They're coming into our house. What better way to get it started for the playoffs."
As for Brady, as he prepared for his 17th postseason, he said he wasn't thinking about the future beyond facing the Titans.
The 42-year-old has more playoff victories (30) than each of the 11 other projected starting quarterbacks in this year's playoffs combined (26). He also has a contract that expires after the season and could face entering free agency for the first time in his 20-year NFL career.
"I'm not much for nostalgia," Brady said. "I'm just pretty focused on what I need to do. This week has felt just like every other week for the last 20 years. I haven't thought about those things. I wouldn't be thinking about those things anyway. It's felt like a normal week for me."