FOXBOROUGH — It wasn’t that long ago — less than eight weeks — that the Patriots and Broncos met in a nationally televised showdown at Gillette Stadium. Go back and watch the tape, and you’ll see Peyton Manning and Tom Brady under center, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman catching passes, and familiar faces such as Logan Mankins, Chandler Jones, Knowshon Moreno, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end between the Patriots and Broncos from their Nov. 24 game compared with the AFC Championship game that will be played Sunday in Denver. The faces and uniforms are the same, but the teams are now quite different.
“It’s just like any time you play a team twice — I think you look at what happened, but you have to erase the board and start all over again,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I think we’ve all seen in the playoffs that it’s really about that game, that matchup, that day.
“Whatever happened during the regular season or some other year or some other time, or whatever reference point you want to take, is really not that significant. What it’s about is how things go on that particular day, just being at our best on the biggest game of the year.”
Let’s start with the Patriots, who have been an amorphous blob all season — a defense-first team to start the season, then an aerial juggernaut with Rob Gronkowski, and now a ground-and-pound team behind LeGarrette Blount and an improving offensive line.
The Patriots won’t have Gronkowski this time around. He had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the November matchup but tore his ACL two weeks later.
And this might not be a team with enough firepower to overcome a 24-point deficit as it did the first time. In addition to Gronkowski, the Patriots might not have Kenbrell Thompkins (concussion), who caught six passes for 56 yards in the first matchup. And Aaron Dobson missed the first game with a foot injury, and might miss this one, as well. New England’s only recent success in the passing game has been with play-action calls and quick hitters to the running backs.
In November, Gronkowski opened up the field for Tom Brady, who threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions in leading the Patriots back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to win in overtime, 34-31. Blount rushed just two times for 13 yards that night.
That game was the first of four consecutive 300-yard games for Brady, but the Patriots struggled to win all four, beating Denver and Houston by 3 points, Cleveland by 1 point, and losing to Miami.
But in the three games since, the Patriots have morphed into a power running team, calling 123 running plays and 80 passing plays as Brady has been held under 200 passing yards each time.
It may not look sexy, but the Patriots are 3-0 with the run-first approach, averaging 39.3 points per game.
“It makes it easy when you hand it off and it goes 70 yards for a touchdown,” Brady said. “That’s a great feeling and great way to score. Hopefully we keep doing it.”
The Patriots won’t have Brandon Spikes, either, after he was placed on injured reserve last week with a knee injury. His absence paved the way for rookie Jamie Collins to play 100 percent of the snaps for the first time this season in the playoff game against the Colts, and he responded with his first career sack and interception and several key plays in the run game.
Collins played only 23 of 90 snaps in the first Broncos game, but his presence could be crucial Sunday, because he might be the only player athletic and big enough to cover Denver tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the first game with a knee injury.
Thomas, a 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound former college basketball player, had 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns this year and was Peyton Manning’s favorite target in the red zone. Expect Collins, Aqib Talib (who helped shut down New Orleans’s Jimmy Graham this year), and safety Devin McCourty to all play a role in covering Thomas.
Thomas presents “every type of matchup problem,” McCourty said.
“He’s a bigger, taller tight end, but he’s very explosive,” McCourty said. “It’ll be similar, just like when we played Jimmy Graham of the Saints. He’ll be out wide, he’ll be back-side, sometimes he’ll be in the tight end position. We’ll just have to know where he’s at.”
The Broncos arguably have more changes from November to now than the Patriots do. Most notably, they won’t have their top pass rusher and best all-around defensive player in outside linebacker Von Miller, who is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Miller had only five sacks in nine games this year, but he had a standout performance against the Patriots: eight tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
The Broncos also just lost their top defensive back, cornerback Chris Harris, to a torn ACL suffered Sunday against the Chargers. Harris had four tackles against the Patriots, and his absence will either force slot cornerback Champ Bailey to the outside, or put 12-year veteran Quentin Jammer in the starting lineup opposite Rodgers-Cromartie with Bailey as the No. 3 corner.
And we likely won’t see a familiar face returning punts for the Broncos, either. Welker helped cost the Broncos the game in November when he failed to fair catch a punt in overtime, the ball careened off Tony Carter, and the Patriots recovered the fumble deep in Denver territory and kicked the winning field goal.
Eric Decker likely will be returning punts this time; he averaged 22 yards on three punt returns last Sunday, with a long of 47 that would have been a touchdown had he not tripped over his own feet.
Another change to consider: Coach John Fox is back on the sideline after missing the first game because of a heart condition (defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio served as interim coach).
And beating Manning twice in one season is no easy feat. Manning has won his last five “rematch” games, with the 2007 Chargers the last team to beat him twice in a season.
“My experience is that these games — even if it is the same opponent — take on a completely different personality,” Fox said. “I don’t think this will be any different.”