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Utilitarian Vrabel shows his worth

FOXBOROUGH -- The analogy fits Mike Vrabel well. Fellow linebacker Rosevelt Colvin calls him a Swiss Army knife on the football field.

"Versatile, can do a lot of different things, a good tool," Colvin said.

Nicely said, on several fronts.

Few would deny that the 31-year-old Vrabel has a sharp edge to him. He's also durable. And just when you might forget how important he's been to the Patriots over the last five-plus seasons, he shows up in multiple ways to provide a reminder, such as Sunday, when he collected six tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in the 35-0 win over the Packers.

Now, Vrabel wants to see his Patriots teammates continue to sharpen their blades at a time when title contenders usually begin to make their runs. Since Vrabel joined the Patriots prior to the 2001 season, they are 33-6 (including playoffs) after Thanksgiving, the best mark in the league.

"It doesn't mean it will happen this year, but I think you can tell a lot about the future from the past," Vrabel said yesterday as the team began preparations to face the 9-1 Bears Sunday. "Teams that play well late in the season usually enjoy a lot of success in the postseason. So we understand that this is the time we have to play well."

Vrabel felt the team took an important step in Green Bay.

"There were a lot of things that were said or not said last week about us -- and it's tough when you don't lose two games [in a row] for a while," he said. "Bill [Belichick] got us back into practice mode and making those plays in practice and really concentrating on it. It carried over to the game."

Vrabel's play seemed to rise to a higher level against the Packers.

If ever there was a non-catch that left an indelible mark, it was his near-touchdown at the start of the second quarter. Then there was his strip sack near the end of the game, a simple power rush off the left edge, as he flicked aside running back Ahman Green -- who was helpless in that one-on-one blocking situation -- before knocking the ball away from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to officially seal the shutout.

Want some more variety?

On a second-quarter play, Vrabel jammed tight end David Martin within the 5-yard limit, then dropped into a zone, where he was in position to tackle fullback William Henderson on a 6-yard pass. At other points in the game, when the Packers attempted to run to the right side, Vrabel was locked up against right tackle Tony Moll and tight end Bubba Franks, securing that side of the field.

Add it all up and it was a Swiss Army knife type of performance.

"I think a lot of guys try to do that," Vrabel said when discussing his versatility. "You have to know all spots."

Because Vrabel knows them well, the Patriots have employed him in a variety of roles this season. He played inside linebacker in the 3-4 set in the season opener, as the team was without Tedy Bruschi (wrist injury). The next week, Vrabel was at outside linebacker in the 4-3 set, which required a completely different set of skills. When the team returned to its 3-4 in its next game, Vrabel lined up at outside linebacker.

In pure passing situations, Vrabel has more often than not found himself in coverage. It's a slight change from past years, such as 2003, when he totaled 9 1/2 sacks. Vrabel has 3 1/2 sacks this season and 43 1/2 (including playoffs) over his 10-year career.

"We have two guys who rush well -- Tully [Banta-Cain] and Rosie -- and I've been more or less a cover guy," Vrabel said. "When you get your chances to rush, you have to make them count. We mix it around, depending on the game plan. That's no issue."

Coaches have credited Vrabel with 64 tackles on the season, which ties for third on the team behind Bruschi (70) and Junior Seau (69).

Off the field, Vrabel showed a bit of his sharp edge yesterday when he hung his Ohio State No. 94 jersey at the edge of quarterback Tom Brady's locker. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that Vrabel's alma mater had beaten Brady's alma mater in the college football game of the year Saturday.

"It's a lot better than a hat," Vrabel said with a smile. "I got the old throwback jersey from college, and that's part of the bet. It's better than me wearing a Brady jersey from Michigan, I can tell you that."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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