The New England Patriots have squared off against the Denver Broncos five times since Peyton Manning joined the bad guys in 2012. Tom Brady and company have a 3-2 series lead, but Manning got the better of the Patriots in the 2013 postseason.
Things have certainly changed.
Think back to 2012, and you'll find that safety Tavon Wilson was a starter for the Patriots and Devin McCourty was still at cornerback; the Patriots had yet to acquire Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers. On the other sideline, Peyton Manning was in his 5th game back from neck surgery and was handing the ball off to running back Willis McGahee. The Patriots won 31-21.
Over the years, the two rosters have changed as the Broncos have built a top-heavy roster with some extremely talented players, while the Patriots have opted to use their cap space to build more depth during free agency. Both strategies have been supplemented by some pretty good draftwork and infusions of youth.
The Patriots lost to the Broncos the last time the two squared off in the postseason, back in the 2013 AFC Championship game. In just two quick years, both teams are entirely different.
New England's 2013 roster is nearly unidentifiable. Four starting offensive lineman are gone (Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly), while Michael Hoomanawanui was the team's top tight end. The depth on offense was such a hodgepodge of injured product that Julian Edelman and Hooman were the only skill players to field more than 70% of the snaps; Austin Collie played 63%!
The defensive side of the ball is slightly more recognizable, with Dont'a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, and Chandler Jones all playing 95+% of the snaps. Of course, the top two defensive tackles were Chris Jones (97%) and Sealver Siliga (currently fourth on the Patriots depth chart), so there's a marked improvement up the middle. Also Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard led the way for the Patriots cornerbacks. Neither were good enough to make this team in 2015.
If you look at the Broncos roster during that game, they were without pass rusher Von Miller. The only two defenders still active are linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Malik Jackson. There is no more Champ Bailey or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. There is no more Robert Ayers or Shaun Phillips. The entire defense has changed for the better.
Compare that playoff game to the 2015 regular season game and there will be new faces. Brock Osweiler was the Denver quarterback in 2015, and he was throwing to Emmanuel Sanders and Vernon Davis instead of Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. The Broncos were without Manning and pass rusher Demarcus Ware in the 2015 regular season game, and they lost guard Louis Vasquez, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, and strong safety T.J. Ward during the game.
The Patriots? They were without wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They lost tight end Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter before overtime. They were without blocking tight end Michael Williams and nickel corner Justin Coleman. They were without linebacker Jamie Collins and lost Dont'a Hightower before halftime.
New England lost after an undrafted rookie wide receiver and a 4th string linebacker were forced into key roles and were unable to succeed. That's just how the ball bounces.
The more apt comparison for this upcoming playoff game could be the 2014 regular season game. The Broncos 2015 defense was pretty much all present at that point, other than Travathan. The offense featured Sanders, Thomas, and running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. The biggest difference between the Broncos past and present is the level of play from quarterback Peyton Manning.
The 2014 Patriots had Edelman, Gronkowski, Amendola, and Brandon LaFell. They had a copy of James White in Shane Vereen (spoiler, Vereen played 74% of snaps for you DFS hooligans). The biggest difference for the Patriots might be that the defense is better in 2015.
New England was without Chandler Jones due to a hip injury, while Vince Wilfork played alongside the likes of Casey Walker on the interior. The Patriots defensive front is better now than it was last season, and the safety play from Patrick Chung has improved by considerable leaps and bounds.
The Patriots won that game 43-21 after holding the Broncos rushing attack to 40 yards on 15 carries. New England is better now than they were in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014. They're definitely better now than they were earlier in the season.
This will be a whole different ball game.