DENVER — The Patriots took another hit Sunday night when linebacker Dont'a Hightower left late in the first half with an apparent left leg injury. He did not return.
Hightower was injured making a tackle on Broncos tight end Owen Daniels.
A light but steady snow had coated the field and players were having trouble gaining traction. Hightower had slipped on the grass on an earlier play.
Two plays after Hightower exited, Denver's Ronnie Hillman scored on a 19-yard run to cut the Patriots' lead to 14-7.
One of the Patriots — and the league's — top defenders, Hightower wears the green dot and makes all the calls. He entered the game as the team's second-leading tackler with 53. Earlier this year, Hightower missed the Colts game after suffering a shoulder injury early against the Cowboys.
In some other injury news, Broncos safety T.J. Ward left late in the first quarter with an ankle injury. He was part of a gang tackle on LeGarrette Blount's first carry.
Also, Denver nose tackle Sylvester Williams left with an ankle injury, and guard Louis Vasquez exited with a groin injury.
Wilson has filled in
With five DNPs on his season docket heading into the Patriots' Monday night showdown with the Bills last week, Tavon Wilson seemed an unlikely candidate to come to the rescue of a team dangerously thin at cornerback.
But there was Wilson, a safety caught in a numbers crunch, taking a regular turn in the secondary, covering everyone and looking very much like a starting cornerback.
He finished with three tackles as he lined up in the slot, out wide, and a few steps off the line, playing 70 percent of the defensive snaps.
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are the starters in the base defense, while Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin had been the first corners in on sub packages.
With Coleman inactive with a hand injury and Melvin out of the rotation at the position against Buffalo, playing time was available and Wilson made the most of it.
"Tavon has worked hard all year,'' coach Bill Belichick said. "We have a lot of competition at that position. He had an opportunity to play more [against the Bills] and I thought he did a good job with it, really played some corner-type positions for us depending on the exact scheme, what we were in and how it matched up with Buffalo and so forth. But he did a good job.''
With Coleman inactive again, Wilson was looking to build on that performance in Sunday's night game against the Broncos.
It didn't surprise Belichick that Wilson stepped up against the Bills.
"Tavon has been one of our practice players on multiple occasions this year,'' he said. "He does what he can to help the team, whether it's on defense or in the kicking game or in practice or just sharing his experience with younger players, that kind of thing. But he's done a good job for us and he came through [against Buffalo] when we really needed him, as did a lot of other guys. That was big for us.''
Team president Jonathan Kraft was asked before the game if there was concern that the illness that has knocked Jamie Collins out for a fourth straight game could spread throughout the team.
"Fortunately this wasn't a situation where that could happen,'' Kraft said. "But Jamie is getting better, getting stronger every day. I've seen really bad viruses knock people out in everyday life, but when it happens to a professional athlete it resonates much more loudly. But this was something that doesn't have us worried about the physical infrastructure at the facility.''
Texans game flexed
The Patriots-Texans game at Houston on Dec. 13 has been flexed from a 1 p.m. start into the "Sunday Night Football" slot at 8:30 p.m.
Kraft, asked before the game he if he thought that might happen, predicted correctly when he said, "Probably. I think we still have the ability to be on in primetime one more time."
More from Kraft
Kraft declined to get specific when asked about how to improve the performances of the league's referees, particularly in light of several mishaps in last week's win over the Bills, including the infamous inadvertent whistle.
"I'm going to leave that one to Park Avenue to figure out,'' he said with a chuckle. "But those guys have a tough job. I don't think there's a conscious effort to mess things up. Everything they do is an attempt to get to the right place.''
He also said future technology would "help the refs to do their jobs even better than they do today.''
Kraft also said he thinks Tom Brady seems to be "de-aging."
Back in action
Keshawn Martin, who missed the past five games with a hamstring ailment, started.
He was in on all four plays of New England's initial drive, one capped by Brady's 26-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski.
Tight end Asante Cleveland made his Patriots debut and recorded his first career reception on the first play of the second quarter. The 1-yard catch was his lone target.
Out of action
The Patriots already had ruled out Collins, receivers Julian Edelman (foot surgery) and Danny Amendola (knee), tight end Michael Williams (knee), and Coleman before Sunday's game. Rookies Jordan Richards and Trey Flowers were the inactives. It was the first missed game for Richards, the safety out of Stanford. Flowers has played in just one game . . . Safety Patrick Chung (foot) was added to the injury report but he was active for the game . . . Quarterback Peyton Manning headlined the Broncos' list of inactives. Joining the NFL's all-time leading passer was QB Christian Ponder, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, receiver Jordan Norwood, cornerback Lorenzo Doss, center Sam Brenner, and tight end Richard Gordon . . . How soon they forget: Brock Osweiler received the biggest cheer during introductions . . . Shocking but true: Sunday night's kickoff temperature was 25, just the fifth time since 2007 the Broncos have played at home in sub-freezing weather. It was the first time there was accumulating snow in a Denver home game since Christmas Eve, 2006 . . . Ryan Allen was exceptional, landing five of his 10 punts inside the Denver 20-yard line . . . Rookie long snapper Joe Cardona made his first career tackle when he took down Omar Bolden on a second-quarter punt return . . . Devin McCourty will be honored Tuesday with the 2015 Champion award at the Boston Children's Hospital's annual Champions for Children gala at the Seaport World Trade Center. Since 1997, Champions has raised nearly $40 million for patients and families at Children's. McCourty is expected to be joined by secondary mates Patrick Chung, Richards, and Melvin.