It all seemed so friendly and respectful last week. Even the former Patriot/current Titan who could have been bitter – Malcolm Butler – uttered nothing but benign words in the runup to Sunday.
Made sense, though. Who among the Titans had an obvious reason to be pissed at the Patriots and Bill Belichick?
Mike Vrabel’s track to becoming a head coach was accelerated because of his time spent under Belichick in the ‘00s. Cornerback Logan Ryan got paid. Dion Lewis got paid. Butler got paid.
So what if they had to go to Tennessee to have it happen? They started on the path to becoming financially secure for the rest of their lives when Belichick and the Patriots put their hand on their shoulder and said, “Won’t you join us?”
But we underrated the sting of having to go someplace else.
We ignored the fact that, in a cutthroat profession where mining for motivating slights is a pastime, several Titans had a pocketful of them and their teammates were happy to draft off their irritation.
How would it have looked with Shaq Mason and Gronk? Would it have been a beatdown with a full-go Sony Michel and Marcus Cannon? What if Trent Brown didn’t have gastrointestinal distress and the Patriots wore cleats that didn’t slip?
It might not have looked that different.
Sometimes, all it takes is one guy to be pissed off at the opponent to get everyone else going. (Example: Lawyer Milloy in the 2003 season opener at Buffalo).
The Titans had about six guys with axes to subtly grind.
There was Dean Pees, fired in early 2010 after the Patriots-Ravens playoff game debacle. The 69-year-old Pees went to the other side immediately and was Baltimore’s linebackers coach for two seasons.
He was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2012 and when the Ravens beat the hell out of the Patriots in the second half of the 2012 AFC Championship, they did so in part because Pees was able to neutralize the Patriots up-tempo offense that undressed teams like the Texans.
Vrabel got traded to the Chiefs in 2009 and, as he explained last week, he didn’t talk to Belichick for about a year.
Lewis’ irritation, which on the surface is hard to understand since the team rescued him from oblivion, dates back to the summer of 2017 when he was buried on the depth chart behind Rex Burkhead. When the season ended and Lewis was a free agent, the Titans anted up and the Patriots re-upped with Burkhead for way less than the Titans are paying Lewis.
Ryan surely would have preferred staying with the Patriots and his Rutgers family. Butler got put through the wringer for two seasons with the Super Bowl cherry on top.
These things happen.
In Week 3, the Lions – who don’t even seem to like Matt Patricia that much – beat the hell out of the Patriots and (not coincidentally) held the Patriots to 10 points like Tennessee did.
In 2010, the Patriots got demolished in Cleveland by head coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll 34-14.
In 2009, they lost at Denver 20-17 to rookie head coach Josh McDaniels.
So it’s on us for soft-peddling the bitterness factor in this one. You have to pay attention to history.
Speaking of history, how have the Patriots performed after these “Bitterness Bowls”?
This year, they reeled off six straight wins after the loss to the Lions and averaged 35.5 points per game.
The 2010 Patriots won their final eight after losing at Cleveland including a win over the Steelers the following week and finished 14-2.
The 2009 Patriots outscored their next two opponents 94-7 after the McDaniels Game.
And the week after the loss to Buffalo back in 2003, after ESPN’s Tom Jackson told the country that the Patriots “hate their coach”, New England went out and sacked Donovan McNabb eight times, picked him off twice and forced him to go 18 for 46 in a rout of the Eagles.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.