On Sunday, the race for the AFC’s top playoff seed will see its biggest game yet: The New England Patriots will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a contest that might already pre-determine who will hold homefield advantage throughout the postseason.
The Patriots will enter the game with a lot of questionmarks, as a look at today’s final injury report shows:
Patriots: DT Alan Branch (knee)
Steelers: TE Vance McDonald (shoulder)
Seeing Alan Branch already ruled out is no surprised. The veteran missed all three of this week’s practices after suffering a knee injury during Sunday’s loss in Miami. With Branch out, New England will likely turn to Adam Butler and Ricky Jean-Francois to provide depth at defensive tackle behind Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy – talented options but a clear downgrade especially when it comes to defending a player of Le'Veon Bell's caliber.
Patriots: DL Trey Flowers (rib), CB Stephon Gilmore (ankle), LB David Harris (ankle), WR Chris Hogan (shoulder), DB Brandon King (hamstring), DL Eric Lee (ankle), WR Matthew Slater (hamstring), LB Kyle Van Noy (calf), OT LaAdrian Waddle (ankle), DL Deatrich Wise Jr. (foot)
Steelers: CB Joe Haden (fibula), CB Coty Sensabaugh (shoulder), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring)
The Patriots list a total of 10 players as questionable to perform in Sunday's game. Some, like Chris Hogan and Stephon Gilmore are relatively safe bets to ultimately dress up. Others, however, are question marks entering the contest – among them New England's top options at defensive edge (Trey Flowers), linebacker (Kyle Van Noy) and right tackle (LaAdrian Waddle). Getting them back this week would be a huge boost to the team's offense and defense.
Speaking of defense, cornerback Malcolm Butler was removed from the injury report today. He was limited the last two weeks due to an ankle injury but practiced without limitations today. Also removed were quarterback Tom Brady (achilles) and wide receiver Brandin Cooks (hand), who were practicing fully on Wednesday and Thursday but are officially no longer part of the Patriots' injury list.