FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Sunday’s AFC Championship will feature two of the NFL’s A-list celebrities, but plenty of big names will be left out of the ads and promotions during the remaining days of pregame hype.
Since the teams met here in Week 12, when the Pats erased a 24-point deficit for a 34-31 overtime win at Gillette Stadium, the conference’s top two seeds have lost tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Brandon Spikes, linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris to season-ending injuries.
The significance of those injuries is otherworldly, and the teams’ collective health is just one of the ways the AFC finalists have changed during the past seven weeks.
The Patriots have been without their most dominant offensive weapon and run-stuffer to go along with their previous fallen stars, and the Broncos now are without their two best defensive players with this week’s news of Harris’ torn ACL.
“It’s a different team now than what we had seen earlier,” said Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. “We’ve got to go out and look at film, look at what they did against San Diego and see who we’re going to be playing against.”
The Patriots moved ahead without Spikes in their divisional-round victory against the Colts, as Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins were ferocious in both phases and played in base and nickel sets. But Spikes did have nine tackles against the Broncos in Week 12 and led the linebackers with 67 snaps despite a pass-heavy game plan. Since that epic night, Collins (who had 10 tackles against Denver) quickly has emerged and Hightower has uncovered his first-round talent.
The Patriots also have tightened their run defense since allowing Knowshon Moreno to dash for 224 yards in Week 12. They’ve swapped defensive tackle Sealver Siliga for Joe Vellano, reverted to a 4-3 base with one-gap responsibilities, and held opponents to 112.8 rushing yards per game.
The Pats and Broncos actually have gotten some injured players back since Week 12. Denver has the advantage in that regard, with tight end Julius Thomas back in the mix after missing time with a knee injury and cornerback Champ Bailey available after a season’s worth of aches and pains. Plus, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie missed the second half in Week 12 after inexplicably diving for a second-quarter Hail Mary attempt.
And, don’t forget: Broncos coach John Fox has returned to the sideline since missing four games because of heart surgery.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have safety Steve Gregory and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the lineup after they were injured midway through the season. Rookie Duron Harmon and Matthew Mulligan started in their respective places. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was limited to 21 snaps because of a knee injury in the first meeting with the Broncos, is now closer to full strength after his best game as a pro in last Saturday’s 43-22 Divisional Round win over the Colts.
The biggest plus on the Pats’ side, though, has been the rapid emergence of the bulldozing Blount, who has 431 yards and eight touchdowns in his past three games. Remember, both Blount (two snaps, two carries for 13 yards) and Stevan Ridley (five snaps, four carries for 14 yards) were quickly benched against the Broncos for fumbling.
Brandon Bolden led the Pats with 13 carries for 58 yards and one touchdown in the first game. He has four carries for 8 yards since, as Blount has emerged and Ridley has reestablished himself. It’s a big reason why the Patriots have been successful in the wake of the injury to Gronkowski, who had seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown in Week 12.
Outside of the personnel changes, it’s hard to expect a similar game anyway. The Broncos stormed out to a 24-0 lead, largely because the Patriots fumbled on their first three possessions, and the Arctic cold didn’t help the cause. Sunday’s forecast calls for a high of 56 degrees, which sounds like shootout weather for Brady and Manning.