FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Mike Vrabel’s versatility when the Patriots needed help at inside linebacker was valuable last year. Now he’s moving there again.

His shift from outside linebacker to fill in for sidelined Junior Seau may not be as big a factor this time. New England has a seemingly easy five-game stretch starting Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Still, last season’s experience should help him.

Vrabel switched positions in the second quarter of last Sunday’s 17-13 win over Chicago when Seau left with a serious right arm injury that landed him on injured reserve the next day.

“Even the first couple of plays Sunday night were a little rusty,” Vrabel said. “Then (I) just kind of settled down and I think we were fine.”

The Patriots (8-3) should be more than fine against Detroit. They’ll be facing a team with nine losses one week after beating one with nine wins.

But what if the Lions (2-9) should pull off the upset?

“If that were to happen,” Detroit wide receiver Roy Williams said, “then everyone would just say the Patriots played terrible.”

But Vrabel tried to put a competitive spin on what looms as a mismatch.

“We’ve been in tough games against teams with not great records,” he said. “It’s important to stop the run early so that they do go to the passing game.”

Vrabel will have more responsibility for tackling Kevin Jones, Detroit’s leading rusher, than he would have as an outside linebacker. Jones, who has 50 receptions, missed the 27-10 Thanksgiving loss to Miami with an ankle injury, but isn’t on this week’s injury report.

The Patriots also must contend with Williams, second in the NFL with 993 yards on 60 receptions.

“When we have all our weapons at one time, when we have Kevin Jones in there so we have a run threat, it takes some of the heat off of” Williams, Detroit coach Rod Marinelli said. “He’s getting double-teamed right now and he’s fighting through it. He makes some unbelievable catches.”

The Lions have a very high percentage of passing plays, 68 percent of their total, and that’s one reason Jon Kitna has been sacked 41 times, nearly four a game. Eight of them came in the loss to Miami. He’s also thrown 13 interceptions and 12 touchdowns.

Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the head coach of St. Louis when the Patriots beat the Rams for their first Super Bowl championship, prefers a wide-open attack. New England cornerback Asante Samuel should like that after picking off three passes against Chicago to share the NFL lead with six.

“They look like the Rams with Martz, but with the lion on their helmets and the blue and silver,” Vrabel said. “They are able to move the ball quickly. Eighty yards in four plays is not unheard of for that offense.”

But Detroit has lost its last three games, all against teams with losing records, and squandered a 10-0 lead in the loss to the Dolphins.

That’s quite a change for the Patriots, who just beat one of the NFL’s best teams in a very physical game despite turning over the ball five times. Chicago had four giveaways.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said most turnovers can be avoided and has stressed hanging on to the ball. Fullback Heath Evans said that emphasis is similar to what he saw as a high school senior when he visited Auburn, where he eventually played.

“When I came in the room for my visit,” Evans said with a laugh, “on the board (was written) “better off to have died as a small child than fumble the football.’ That’s about the severity of it here as well.”

Tom Brady threw two interceptions against the Bears, but is 22-4 against NFC teams and 20-1 on artificial surfaces. The Patriots installed one before the game against Chicago to replace the beat-up natural surface.

With Seau out, Tully Banta-Cain is expected to take Vrabel’s spot outside. Or the Patriots could rely more on a 4-3 defense.

“You prepare for everything,” Marinelli said. “They’ll always be prepared and they’ll always be doing things exactly right, so it comes back to what we do.”

Since 2001, what the Lions have done hasn’t been good. They have an NFL-worst 23-68 record in that span. The Patriots have the same number of wins in their last 33 regular-season games.

“This (Lions) offense can put up points at any time,” Williams said, “but last week we put up 10 points in the first quarter and then we were shut out in the next three.”

And the Patriots are better than the Dolphins.

Still, Brady spouted the Belichick-inspired party line.

“I don’t think there are any teams that you can just show up and roll the helmets out there and expect to beat,” he said. “Coach Belichick has been especially tough on the players … as he should be. He never lets his foot off the gas pedal.”

AP-ES-12-02-06 1222EST


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