FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Hightower's motivation on door of locker: Longtime Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower keeps a motivational saying inside his locker, below a picture of his mother, L'Tanya, and girlfriend, Morgan. The saying reads, "I can't cry about having a lot on my plate when my goal was to eat."
Hightower is now in his eighth NFL season and seeking a fourth Super Bowl championship after playing four seasons at Alabama and winning two national championships. The 29-year-old Hightower explained its meaning last week.
"It's an old quote. A year or two ago, I got big into stoic philosophy. I ran across the quote, and I don't even know if it's big in stoic philosophy or not, but it struck me," he said.
"It's a common denominator for me. A lot of times you come in from practice and you're tired and sore, and you don't necessarily want to do anything. But a lot of times you had that drive whenever you were younger -- high school, college -- and this reminds you of what you have: the opportunity to play a kid's game, and support your family.
"A lot of times, I'll beat myself up. So I have that quote, with the pictures, to kind of bring all that stuff in."
Hightower is having another solid season. He is second on the Patriots in tackles (58), and has four sacks and three passes defended. Coach Bill Belichick joked that his nickname is "Mr. February" because of his knack for making game-altering plays in the Super Bowl.
He's a centerpiece to the defense, leading the huddle and linebacker-bonding experiences such as the hibachi dinner they had together Thursday.
"I love being around these guys, they make it a helluva lot easier," Hightower said when asked what fuels him. "I feel like this is my purpose in life right now, to take advantage of this opportunity and provide for my family."
2. Special venue for Belichick: Sunday will be the Patriots' fifth game at Paul Brown Stadium in the Belichick era, and the name of the Cincinnati venue -- which bucks the current trend of corporate sponsorship -- has special meaning to Belichick. He thanked a reporter for asking about the topic last week, saying, "Coach Brown's really the professional coach that I've probably looked up to more than any other, just in terms of the contributions he made to the game, the professional way he did things, and the way he was able to adapt, be innovative and creative to find ways to win. ... I just don't think the game would be what it is today without his contributions. So to walk into Paul Brown Stadium and to know what he stood for, it's certainly a sense of memories and I feel a deep debt of gratitude."
3. Waiting on NFL's ruling on investigation: It would be a surprise to me if the NFL's investigation into the Patriots takes much longer, as the issue doesn't seem to be what's on the tape, but more about the believability of the explanation. I thought former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli captured the situation well in his interview on ESPN Radio's Spain and Company program. It's hard to believe this was nefarious. Mark Maske, a veteran NFL reporter for the Washington Post, reported that the league is likely to penalize the Patriots and is “contemplating disciplinary measures in line with those imposed on teams in recent seasons for infractions of game-day rules … that could mean a fine in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and potentially the loss of reduction in value of a draft choice, typically a lower level pick.”
4. Did You Know: Patriots left guard Joe Thuney is tied for second in the NFL in ESPN's pass block win rate metric, which harnesses player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats and measures which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. Thuney has done it 97% of the time, with only Baltimore's Marshal Yanda rating higher among guards. When factoring in all Patriots linemen, New England ranks 23rd in the NFL with a 56% rate.
5. Bielema's future on the radar: Second-year Patriots defensive-line coach Bret Bielema had successful tenures as head coach at Wisconsin (2006-12) and Arkansas (2013-17), so it makes sense that his name is mentioned among college head-coaching possibilities around the country. He sounds open to pursuing it if the right opportunity presents itself. "I've been in this business for over 25 years now and was a head coach at 32, so I was really young when I got it. Whenever that opportunity comes again, it will be great, but I'm just enjoying the moment, going to work every day, and learning from one of the best that's ever coached this game," Bielema said.
6. Slater jumps in with safeties at Patriots practice: Perennial Pro Bowl special-teamer Matthew Slater has a rare practice routine in that he often works alone, as Nick Underhill's piece for The Athletic detailed during training camp. Slater is also a spiritual leader in the locker room, and one thing I noticed early in a practice last week when the team went through fundamental drills in position groups, Slater jumped in with the safeties. "My old position [at UCLA]," he said with a smile. In this case, it was a chance to work some of the techniques he would execute in the game -- such as shedding blocks -- but it was also a reminder that he has rare freedom to insert himself into almost every position group, and that's also part of how he connects with each player in the locker room.
7. Hightower sought out Belichick after watching documentary: Hightower watched Tuesday's NFL Films-produced piece on Belichick and Nick Saban with interest, since he's spent the past 12 years of his life playing for the coaches. His reaction? "I think it was awesome. I said something to Coach the next day," Hightower said. "I think at the beginning, when they asked for a minute to talk, just the common denominator -- football is something where they can come together. They asked for a minute [without cameras] and just got right to it. I know family is really important to both of them, but when they asked for a minute, they didn't go into that. It was, 'When you're in Cover 3, what do you do?' Just so much knowledge between them."
8. No relation for Bengals' Stanley Morgan Jr.: When the Patriots visit the Bengals on Sunday, longtime New England fans might be asking if rookie Cincinnati receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. is any relation to the longtime Patriots great. There is no relation. Morgan Jr., who attended Nebraska, was elevated from the Bengals' practice squad in early October. "He's an all-time great, but it's time for another Stanley Morgan to do his thing and keep the Stanley Morgans on the map," he said leading up to the NFL draft. Morgan Jr. was raised by his mother.
9. Quote of the Week: "Pretty intense fans. It's like Halloween every Sunday there." -- Belichick, on his memories of the Oakland Coliseum, with the final NFL game set to be played there Sunday when the Las Vegas-bound Oakland Raiders host the Jacksonville Jaguars.
10. Quick look at Gable has chance to spark 2020 return: Kicker Josh Gable's two-day stay on the Patriots' practice squad this past week -- which generated headlines because of his proficiency at trick-shot kicks and unique background of having not played college football -- doesn't mean that his time with the franchise is over for good. As Belichick hinted Friday, the possibility that Gable returns for 2020 on a reserve/future contract is very much on the table. Then he could be part of a competition with Stephen Gostkowski, who is coming off left hip surgery and has a base salary that jumps to $3.5 million.