Patriots Finally Catch a Healthy Break

Rob Carr

The Patriots are finally the "healthier" team.

Let me clarify this from the gun: No, it's never a good thing to see players getting injured. No, the Patriots are not the healthier team. But yes, the Patriots have the Broncos in a very positive position as far as personnel match-ups are concerned.

Since the teams played each other in week 12, there's been a lot of changes to the rosters. From big to small, this is an entirely different game than last time.

For the losses, the Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes. The Broncos will be without Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, and Derek Wolfe. While Gronkowski is irreplaceable, so is Miller. Both players can single handedly change the outcome of games and both were available in the round one. Gronkowski is Gronkowski and Miller went full-Miley Cyrus and was a one-man wrecking ball on the Patriots offensive line.

The impact of the other losses? Brandon Spikes was playing at half speed in the first go-round. He had been doubtful all week, yet still played as the Broncos ran wild on the Patriots defense. On the Broncos end, they'll be without Vickerson and Wolfe who were starters on the Broncos defensive line. As the Patriots start running the ball more and more, missing Miller, Vickerson, and Wolfe will be a huge boon for LeGarrette Blount and the offensive line.

In the unknown space, the Patriots were fortunate enough to leave the Colts game relatively unscathed. Still, rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will be undeniably questionable heading into the game. Dobson still hasn't practiced after reaggravating his foot, while Thompkins will have to undergo concussion protocol. My money is on both of them being ready, but it's far from a certainty. If the Patriots have to move forward with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman as the only viable receiving options, they could be in some serious trouble.

On the Broncos end, their secondary could be in serious trouble. While the played without free safety Rahim Moore the first time around, he still finds himself unlikely to play against the Patriots. Additionally, both top corner Chris Harris and strong safety Duke Ihenacho were injured against the Chargers.

Harris has been their best cornerback in recent weeks and the Chargers were able to completely exploit his replacement, Quentin Jammer. (Updated: Recent news is that Harris' knee injury is a torn ACL and will be out for next week). Ihenacho fell to what looks like an MCL and will possibly be operating at a less than optimum level. It's entirely possible that the Broncos could be without four of their top 9 run defenders (per Pro Football Focus).

As for some other changes, the Broncos were without their fantastic tight end Julius Thomas, who is certain to be a huge factor in the passing game. They also lost their other top corner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie right before half-time, so his return will have a large impact as well. DRC had completely removed the Patriots X receiver from the game up until that point.

The most important difference? Head coach John Fox was out for the first game and interim coach Jack Del Rio always struggles to coach against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Having Fox back changes the outlook for any Broncos adjustment.

That said, the Patriots could benefit from the return of a few of their players. Here's the run down:

Marcus Cannon went down with an injury and Will Svitek (4th string tackle) had to square off against Von Miller. Cannon is back and Miller is gone.

LeGarrette Blount (and Stevan Ridley) were benched in the first game for fumbles. They've returned and, over the past three weeks, have never played better.

Joe Vellano was the Patriot who struggled the most against Denver in the first game. He was effectively replaced by former Bronco Sealver Siliga after week 12, and Siliga's undeniably been the best defensive tackle on the roster. The entire make-up of the Patriots run defense has changed.

Dont'a Hightower was benched at the half for his terrible performance. Hightower reassessed his play and has been the Patriots best defender over the past five games.

Jamie Collins saw extensive snaps and earned the right to see more time on the field. He's taken advantage of his time and hasn't looked back and is coming off one of the best days a Patriots defender has had all season. It was also the first time he played every defensive snap. The Patriots linebackers have never been playing better.

Alfonzo Dennard had knee surgery the prior week and still managed to play in the game. He reinjured himself in the second quarter and rookie Logan Ryan had to step in (and he played exceptionally well). He's now fully healthy and coming off one of the best performances of his young career.

Aqib Talib hurt his hip against the Panthers in Week 11, but forced himself to play against Demaryius Thomas. He held him to 30 yards on 6 targets. Talib was in and out of the game, with rookie Justin Green covering for a few snaps, but Talib had lost his early-season shine. With some additional rest, Talib has strung together two positive games after playing a terrible second half to the season.

Steve Gregory was out with a wrist injury and was replaced by rookie Duron Harmon, who was annihilated by Jacob Tamme. While Gregory isn't the paragon of productivity at strong safety, his veteran prowess will certainly benefit against the Broncos elite passing attack.

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There's no doubt that the Broncos offense will be better than it was in Week 12. There's also no doubt that the Patriots defense has taken great strides. If the Broncos secondary and defensive line remains as hobbled as it is today, the Patriots are in fairly good standing to dictate the pace of the game and have the success they need to move on.

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