FOXBOROUGH - In the third row of the press box at Gillette Stadium yesterday, a scout from the Jacksonville Jaguars watched the action on the field, copiously jotting down notes.
It was a reminder that while the regular season has yet to end, it's never too early to begin preparations for the playoffs.
The Jaguars were in town scouting the Patriots, studying the team's personnel, looking to uncover tendencies that could show up in a potential mid-January matchup. The Jaguars are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, and should they win on wild-card weekend, a trip to New England could be in the cards.
So, what could be learned from the Patriots' win over the Dolphins?
Probably not much, considering the Patriots favored a vanilla approach yesterday. After watching New England play it straight-up for much of the day, with few wrinkles on offense or defense, the scouting report heading back to Jacksonville likely doesn't include any gems.
Former Patriots quarterback Jim Miller isn't surprised.
Miller was with the club in 2004 and he remembers how the Patriots approached their season-ending games leading into the playoffs. The goal was most often to show nothing.
In fact, in the season finale that year against the 49ers, Miller recalled the Patriots going as far as installing an offensive package that hadn't been used for most of the season, simply to give potential playoff foes something else to worry about in terms of preparation.
Miller spent 11 seasons in the NFL, with six teams, and that was one aspect that stood out from his time in New England.
"I noticed it more there. When you lock things up early, it gives you a chance to experiment in those ways," Miller said last night.
Yesterday, it appeared to be more about keeping cards close to the vest.
The Patriots stayed with the same offense, a four-receiver package, for approximately two-thirds of the offensive snaps. Coach Bill Belichick explained that was mostly because of circumstance, with tight ends Kyle Brady and Benjamin Watson inactive because of injuries.
"That's really all we did the whole game, other than a few short-yardage plays," Belichick said. "The rest of it was mainly four receivers, a little bit of three receivers, and that was it. We planned to go into the game with that and that's what we did."
Defensively, the Patriots stayed in their base 3-4 alignment, and mixed in a few multiple-defensive back packages. Again, nothing exotic.
The question the Jaguars will have to ask, or any potential playoff foe for that matter, is how much value to put into the performance.
Veteran Dolphins quarterback Trent Green, now in his 14th season, detailed how teams generally scout the opposition.
"Normally, you study the previous four games. You break down the four games, and you also want to go back and look at the teams which run a similar offense or defense to you, depending on what side of the ball you're scouting. Then you might get some tendencies there," said Green, who traveled with the Dolphins yesterday despite being on the injured reserve list.
"In New England's case, you'd probably go back and review the games that are the most meaningful games, prior to them having everything sewn up, as far as home-field, byes, division, those kind of things, and you evaluate those. Obviously, there is a little more weight on those at that time."
In his year in New England, Miller believed the Patriots became masters at masking their tendencies, especially late in the year. For example, if the team called a majority of pass plays on third and 1, it would make sure to run in those situations in late-season games.
"The thing that does is skew your tendencies and doesn't present a realistic view of your football team," Miller said.
In some ways, that might have been the game within yesterday's game.
On the field, it was the Patriots against the Dolphins, but perhaps the Patriots also had future playoff opponents in mind as well. Either way, a scouting report is heading back to Jacksonville, and one is left to wonder just how much value it will have.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.