Bill Belichick doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead, but with the regular season set to end this Sunday and the possibility looming that his team will have to play in the wild-card round a week later, the coach and certain members of his staff will start preparing what they can as soon as they can.
“I think there’s a certain amount of planning and looking ahead that, as a head coach, you need to do or organizationally you need to do,’’ Belichick said during a Monday conference call. “We could be traveling in the playoffs, so we have to look at where we would stay if we have to travel in the playoffs, things like that.
“You can’t be totally oblivious to the possibilities that exist out there.’’
One other possibility: Though the Patriots would be hosting a game on wild-card weekend and wouldn’t have to worry about the travel aspect, they could be playing on a shortened week if the NFL selects them for one of the two Saturday games.
That can also change things.
“It could be a short week,’’ said Belichick. “There are quite a few possibilities. It’s really hard to be so specific on something like that when there are so many possibilities.
“You’re working on a 25 percent chance of something. Whatever you’re working on, there’s probably a 75 percent chance that you’re wrong. I think when it’s 90/10, then maybe you can get a jump on it.’’
While some members of the staff may be looking ahead, and quarterback Tom Brady said in the days leading up to the game against the 49ers that he had started watching film of them a couple of weeks earlier, any sort of early prep work for a wild-card opponent will be done by coaches and scouts — it won’t be a worry for players, particularly the younger members of the team.
“It wouldn’t be the players,’’ Belichick said. “We’re preparing for Miami. But there are always people in our organization, on our coaching staff and on our scouting staff, that do advance work. So while we’re working on Miami, their job is to work on the next team.
“From the players’ standpoint, they’re kind of week-to-week.
“ If we play next week in the wild-card weekend, the team that we don’t play, the players will never really know that we’ve worked on it because we won’t have presented that material to them or gone over it or anything like that.
“I think the challenge for the coaches and the scouting staff and the organization is to stay ahead of the curve so that when we have the players in here, we give them the immediate and most pertinent information for our next opponent. We do that every single week.
“It’s really hard to try to work on two or three teams at once. Occasionally in training camp you might work on a team you open the season with a couple weeks ahead of time, but even that is kind of tough.
“ You’re trying to juggle two or three balls in the air and that’s hard for any player — rookie, veteran — or coach, for that matter.’’
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower has shown up more in recent games, and had a key fourth-quarter sack in Jacksonville, spinning down Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne on third and goal from the 5. On the next snap, Chandler Jones got to Henne and hit his throwing arm, altering a pass that became a Patrick Chung goal-line interception.
Hightower was credited with six tackles in the game.
“I think Dont’a overall has had a real productive year for us when he’s been in there,’’ Belichick said of the first-round pick out of Alabama. “We’ve really had three linebackers with Jerod [Mayo], Dont’a, and Brandon [Spikes], and two of these three are on the field in a lot of the nickel passing situations. Usually it’s Jerod, and the other has kind of been split between Dont’a and Brandon, but with Brandon out [Sunday], Dont’a got more of those reps.
“I think his overall production on a per-play basis has been pretty consistent as far as doing the right thing and handling his responsibility and all that.
“He played more ‘Mike’ [against the Jaguars], which puts an outside linebacker in the middle more, closer to more plays, so that gave him a few more opportunities, which he did a good job with.’’
The sack Sunday was the fourth of the season for Hightower.
The Patriots announced the release of four players: fullback James Develin and receiver Kamar Aiken from the 53-man roster, and offensive lineman Jeremiah Warren and receiver Tony Logan from the practice squad. Develin, a former defensive lineman at Brown, initially was signed to New England’s practice squad Sept. 1 and was promoted to the 53-man Nov. 28. He was not active Sunday in Jacksonville. Aiken was promoted from the practice squad Saturday and was active Sunday, playing five special teams snaps and three on offense.