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AFC Championship Game Preview: Patriots and Broncos Injury Situations

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Previewing the injury situations for both the Patriots and Broncos going into AFC Championship Week.

Dont'a Hightower will play an important role in the outcome of the AFCCG.
Dont'a Hightower will play an important role in the outcome of the AFCCG.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Patriots and the Broncos suffered some injuries in the Divisional Round, but for the most part the two teams are relatively intact after the game. The Broncos lost STer Omar Bolden to a severe knee injury and the Patriots lost LB Jerod Mayo to a shoulder injury. The Broncos have injuries that affect their secondary while the Patriots are a bit thin in their LB corps, which doesn't help either team. The Broncos being limited in the secondary plays into the Patriots hands and the Patriots LBs battling injuries play into the Broncos hands.

Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr.: Perhaps the most important injury that could impact the game belongs to the Broncos top CB. Harris sustained a shoulder injury in the tail-end of the regular season surgery and it got worse in the game against the Steelers. Broncos HC Gary Kubiak said that Harris could not lift up his arm after the game. That type of injury could wind up being the straw the broke the donkey's back since Harris matches up against Julian Edelman. If Harris' shoulder is as bad as Kubiak said it was, that may force Harris to play off of Edelman and that's death for the Denver defense. If the Broncos are forced to put either Aqib Talib or Bradley Roby on Edelman, they lack the foot quickness to stick with Edelman on change of direction or crossing routes.

Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower: Dont'a Hightower is the most critical player in the Patriots defense and it's not just because he's the signal caller. Like the last postseason, Hightower is gutting through pain and trying to push the envelope. Every now and then, Hightower will need to leave the game but his injury shouldn't limit him very much. Hightower is critical in defending the Broncos outside stretch/zone runs because the Broncos like to create cutback lanes, which the linebackers need to fill up quickly. In addition to defending the runs, the Patriots would also like Hightower to occasionally blitz up the middle to create quick pressure on the QB. With Peyton Manning, the first sight of unescapable pressure will cause him to go down like a turtle. If he does, the Patriots should give him a hard shove to remove any doubt of down by contact.

Patriots LB Jamie Collins: Collins is battling through an oblique strain, but should be good to go on Sunday. I'm not sure how limited he will be from the early going, but I do expect him to be good enough to play a normal workload. Peyton Manning likes to use his backs in the passing game, which puts pressure on Collins in coverage. After Collins, the Patriots don't have a player who can be equally effective at creating pressure up the middle as well as cover man-to-man on backs. In addition to the passing game, no LB is better at moving sideline to sideline than Collins. If Collins is able to play at near full strength, the Broncos run game will have issues.

Patriots ED Chandler Jones: The Jones injury would be less of a big deal if the game was at Foxboro instead of Denver. The high altitude means that the Patriots will need to be more liberal in their edge rotations between Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard. If Jones is unable to go, that means the Patriots will be playing Sheard and Ninkovich well above 90% of the snaps instead of the numbers from the Chiefs game. With the Denver air and Peyton's no huddle offense, conditioning could play a factor at some point. Jones just needs to be remotely effective on the edge to impact the game.

Both teams have injuries that play into the strength of their opponent. The Broncos injury in the secondary could limit the Broncos best option for covering the shifty receivers and the Patriots injuries could put less competent players at the 2nd level against the running game. The question comes down to how effective these players will be during the game in addition to the execution level of the other players.