Dont’a Hightower was asked Tuesday if the Patriots linebackers felt as though the group had good depth entering the season.
“We all kind of felt like it was,” Hightower said. “I guess we’re kind of thinning out.”
Run-stuffing linebacker Brandon Spikes was the latest Patriot to hit injured reserve when the team ended his season Monday because of a knee injury, and hardly a teammate batted an eye when the news was announced.
No doubt, Spikes’s teammates will miss him on the field (he’s their third-leading tackler) and off it (he’s one of the emotional leaders in position meetings). But he’s far from the first key starter to go down this season, which has been defined by the Patriots’ uncommon ability to overcome injuries and keep rolling to a 12-4 record and a first-round bye.
Injuries are common throughout the NFL, but what the Patriots have suffered borders on the absurd. Six key starters are gone: Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Tommy Kelly, and Spikes.
Next man up? More like next men up.
Over time, we’ve learned the names Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Dane Fletcher, and Matthew Mulligan. Now with Spikes out, get to know Jamie Collins, Ja’Gared Davis, and Steve Beauharnais.
They come from all types of backgrounds: highly drafted rookies, undrafted grunts, veteran journeymen, and special teams mavens. They’re the unheralded lot asked to replace the injured leaders and help take the Patriots to a fourth Super Bowl title.
“Sometimes you look at the Patriots and you say they’re being held together with duct tape,” said CBS commentator Dan Dierdorf, whose call of the game Saturday night will be the final one of his 30-year broadcast career. “And to think that they finished 12-4 and earned a bye and are sitting at home waiting for the Colts, you can’t look at the Patriots without a great deal of admiration.
“I don’t know that anyone devotes as much attention to players 31 to 53 as Bill Belichick does, because he knows that before the year is over, those players are going to have to contribute. Sometimes I just marvel at how he does it.”
If recent history is our guide, the Patriots’ run will end without Tom Brady and Bill Belichick hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Reviewing the rosters of Super Bowl teams dating to 2001 — the year of the Patriots’ first championship — the teams that reached the big game generally had great fortune when it came to injuries:
■ The 2001 Patriots, 2002 Buccaneers, and 2005 Steelers and Seahawks literally had every key player available for the Super Bowl.
■ The 2003 Panthers reached the game with pretty much everyone but No. 2 tight end Mike Seidman healthy.
■ The 2006 Bears were missing only defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown, while the Colts reached the game with everyone but defensive end Montae Reagor, receiver Brandon Stokley, and defensive back Mike Doss.
■ The 2001 Rams, 2007 Giants, 2008 Cardinals, 2010 Steelers, and 2012 Ravens and 49ers also reached the Super Bowl with minimal injury damage.
Injuries do appear to be more frequent with the recent Super Bowl teams. The 2010 Packers won it all without five starters, including right tackle Mark Tauscher, running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, and linebacker Nick Barnett. The 2009 Saints did it without their left tackle, two defensive linemen, and a key linebacker.
And the Patriots have a history of overcoming injuries to reach the Super Bowl, as well. In 2003, they didn’t have Rosevelt Colvin, Stephen Neal, David Patten, or Damien Woody available, and in 2004, they won without Tom Ashworth, Ty Law, Ben Watson, Tyrone Poole, and Dan Klecko.
In 2007, they lost the Super Bowl without Sammy Morris, David Thomas, Mike Wright, Mel Mitchell, and Colvin again. In 2011, Dan Koppen, Josh Barrett, Andre Carter, and Jermaine Cunningham were on the sidelines for the championship game.
Still, it’s hard to argue that any team has reached the Super Bowl, let alone won it, with as many impact players on the sideline as this year’s Patriots team currently has.
Not that the Patriots have let it faze them.
“There’s no point in crying about it,” Hightower said.
“That’s the way football works — a guy gets hurt, and the next guy steps in and takes that guy’s spot,” added defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “It’s not just us that’s had to deal with it. We’ve had a lot of change, but if you look at the Colts, they’ve had just as much.”
Ninkovich makes a good point, one that might help the Patriots get to the Super Bowl despite their lengthy injury list. Most of the other seven playoff teams are pretty banged up, as well, starting with Saturday’s opponent.
The Colts will be without standout receiver Reggie Wayne (torn ACL), as well as cornerback Greg Toler, tight end Dwayne Allen, guard Donald Thomas, linebacker Pat Angerer, and running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard.
The 49ers and Panthers have done the best job of avoiding injuries. San Francisco has lost only fullback Bruce Miller, receiver Mario Manningham, and nose tackle Ian Williams. Carolina is missing only left guard Amini Silatolu and safety Charles Godfrey.
But the Broncos don’t want to hear any whining from the Patriots — they’ve played all season without center Dan Koppen and left tackle Ryan Clady, plus they have lost pass rusher Von Miller and safety Rahim Moore.
The Chargers lost a pair of receivers and Dwight Freeney, while the Saints lost three starters from the defense and the Seahawks won’t have receiver Sidney Rice and cornerback Brandon Browner.
That the Patriots are hardly the only team dealing with injuries is why pundits can’t count them out, even with all of their significant losses.
“We always laugh, ‘Why would you bet against the Patriots?’ ” said CBS analyst Phil Simms, who quarterbacked the Giants in the 1980s when Belichick was their defensive coordinator.
“Even the Bill Belichick haters in the media have given up, because to see what they’ve done this year, with everything they’ve been faced with, that’s really saying something.”
“Are they the most talented team in the playoffs? Absolutely not,” Dierdorf added. “Would I bet against them? Only with your money.”