Pats' Hightower rooting for 2 top-seeded teams

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Dont'a Hightower has extra time to prepare for his top-seeded team's playoff game.

Meanwhile, he'll be rooting for another No. 1 seed.

The New England Patriots linebacker plans to watch his college team, Alabama, face Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday night.

"I'm definitely going to catch that one," Hightower said Tuesday while wearing an Alabama pullover as he stood at his Patriots locker.

He might even work out a small wager with safety Nate Ebner, the only Ohio State player with New England.

"Me and Nate have talked," he said. "We haven't set it yet. I'm pretty sure that he'll come up with something good."

Running back LeGarrette Blount, safety Patrick Chung and rookie center Bryan Stork also have a special interest in the college games. Blount and Chung attended Oregon, seeded second, while Stork snapped the ball last season to Jameis Winston, who leads third-seeded Florida State against the Ducks in the other semifinal Thursday.

"Oregon's going to win," Blount declared before pulling his school's jacket from his locker.

With a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots (12-4) have a lighter work week than usual. They can't concentrate on preparing for their opponent until they find out who it is.

Hightower and Blount plan to watch both wild-card games in the conference: Baltimore at Pittsburgh on Saturday night and Cincinnati at Indianapolis on Sunday.

A Baltimore win sends the Ravens to Gillette Stadium on Jan. 10. If the Ravens lose, the Patriots will host the winner of the Bengals-Colts contest.

This week, the Patriots welcome having more time off than usual.

"I'm one of the first ones to agree about that," Hightower said. "It's good that we've got a slower pace and make sure that we understand things and let some guys get healed up. But we're definitely taking advantage of it all the way around."

Hightower was one of six starters inactive for last Sunday's game against Buffalo that had no bearing on New England's playoff position. The Bills won 17-9.

Hightower and Blount, who played, were on the injury report for that game with shoulder problems.

"I'm injured, but it's football," Hightower said. "I'm going to play through it."

He became the Patriots' defensive signal-caller when Jerod Mayo suffered a season-ending right knee injury in the sixth game. Mayo also was limited to six games last season by a torn pectoral muscle.

"I've got a lot of guys around me that help make me feel a lot more comfortable. So it's been a lot easier this year," Hightower said. "I was always one that talked, trying to be a nerd about things, and (linebacker coach) Pat Graham's really done a better job than what we did last year as far as just talking about situational things."

Blount spent the first 11 games this season with Pittsburgh but was cut on Nov. 18, less than 24 hours after jogging off LP Field with the clock still running in a 27-24 win over Tennessee.

The Steelers might have needed him now that running back Le'Veon Bell is dealing with a hyperextended right knee that could keep him out of Saturday's game.

Asked if he saw the play on which Bell was injured last Sunday against Cincinnati, Blount paused, then said, "Man, I'm just focused on the Patriots. Obviously, he's a friend of mine and I was concerned, but I'm just focused on the Patriots."

So much so that he claims he has no special interest in the Steelers wild-card game.

"I'm going to watch them the same as I watch everybody else," he said. "I'm going to watch college, too."


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