Less than two months have passed since the Broncos and Patriots met in a wild regular-season game New England. But as the two teams prepare to face off again on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, there are significant differences on both teams. Here are some of the major changes on both teams since the Broncos and Patriots met on November 24:
– Broncos linebacker Von Miller had his best game of the season in that November meeting, scoring the game’s first touchdown on a 60-yard fumble return and adding two sacks and two tackles for loss. Miller is now on injured reserve.
– The Broncos’ secondary has undergone significant changes. Chris Harris was the Broncos’ best defensive back at the time of that previous game in New England, but Harris suffered a torn ACL on Sunday against the Chargers. In that first game, the Patriots’ passing game really picked up after Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie left with an injury at halftime, but Rodgers-Cromartie is healthy now. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey didn’t play in November but will play on Sunday.
– The Broncos’ defensive line is also very different. Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson had a sack and a tackle for loss in the November game, and he hit Tom Brady as he was passing twice. Vickerson is now on injured reserve. Derek Wolfe was a starter on the Broncos’ defensive line in the November game but hasn’t played since then after suffering seizure symptoms on November 29.
– Broncos tight end Julius Thomas was injured and didn’t play in November, and backup tight end Jacob Tamme was Denver’s leading receiver in that game. Now that Thomas is healthy, he’ll be one of Peyton Manning’s top targets, and Tamme will likely be a non-factor.
– Rob Gronkowski was a huge part of the Patriots’ offense, with seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos. Gronkowski is now on injured reserve.
– Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount barely played, with just two touches. Blount has recently emerged as the focal point of the Patriots’ offense, with 48 carries for 355 yards and six touchdowns in the Patriots’ last two games. The flip side of Blount’s emergence is that Brandon Bolden, who was the Patriots’ leading rusher in the November game against the Broncos, is now a non-factor.
– Patriots safety Steve Gregory missed the November meeting with a finger injury. He’s healthy and starting now.
– Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes had nine total tackles and recovered a fumble against the Broncos. He’s now on injured reserve.
– Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga is now a starter but was inactive when the Patriots played the Broncos.
– On special teams, Patriots punter Ryan Allen is hurt and might be unavailable on Sunday. The Patriots had Devin McCourty returning kickoffs against the Broncos in the regular season but have now turned those responsibilities over to Blount. The Broncos had Wes Welker on punt returns against the Patriots but this time will have either Trindon Holliday or Eric Decker returning punts.
Do all these changes add up to an advantage for the Broncos or the Patriots? We’ll find that out on Sunday. But we know for sure that these two teams are very different than they were in November.