The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are preparing to square off for the chance to travel to New Jersey for the beginning of February, but their depth charts don't look very similar to the ones they had in August. While the country argues the merits of Brady and Manning, here's a look at some positional battles in this game that look nothing like what they "should" have.
NE RT Marcus Cannon/DEN DE Malik Jackson: I would be lying if I told you that I've heard of Malik Jackson, and the only reason that I know Cannon is because he has played as a fill-in in previous seasons for the team I follow the most, so this is really a matchup of nobodies. This battle was created by injuries to Denver's pass rusher extraordinaire Von Miller and possible best right tackle in the NFL Sebastian Vollmer. Pegged as a mauler out of TCU, Cannon has performed as a top-ten right tackle in pass coverage since stepping in for Vollmer, while Jackson leads the Broncos in tackles for loss and quarterback pressures.
NE TE Michael Ho'omanawanui/DEN S Mike Adams: "Hoo-man," as Brady refers to his tight end, was a fifth-round draft choice by the Rams three years ago, while it's been a decade since Mike Adams attended college at Delaware. Though it's slightly unlikely that these two will match up in coverage, as the Patriots only completed two passes to tight ends last week, it's worth recognizing that these guys were way down the pecking order earlier in the year. The Broncos have placed safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter on IR, while the tight end situation in New England has been a disaster of spectacular magnitude.
DEN C Manny Ramirez/NE DT's Chris Jones & Joe Vellano: It's crazy that Ramirez has started all 17 games this season, since he entered training camp as the third string center, but somehow Jones and Vellano were rated even lower. Both were picked up as rookie free agents, though Jones was at least drafted by the Texans before they cut him, but they've held their own this year. While few could replace Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, these two have combined for 108 tackles and 8 sacks across their 29 games, which will do just fine. Ramirez started every game for a Denver line that led the league in pass protection despite also losing All-Pro LT Ryan Clady to injury.
DEN RB Knowshon Moreno & TE Julius Thomas/NE LB's Jamie Collins & Dont'a Hightower: Though it seems impossible at this stage, the Week 1 depth chart had Ronnie Hillman as the Denver running back, with Montee Ball as his backup. Since then, Moreno's regular season snagged 1,038 yards rushing, 548 receiving (on 60 catches!), and 13 total touchdowns, which includes a 224 yard rushing day against the Patriots in Week 12. Not bad for a "first round bust" out of Georgia. Covering Moreno and Thomas, who wasn't a starter until Week 1, will be the guys who started the season backing up Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, both of whom are on IR. Dont'a has been good in the run game, if exposed in the passing game, and has played a good number of snaps over the season. Collins, on the other hand, had a wicked game last week with 6 tackles, a sack, a stuff, a pass defended, and an interception. It was the first time this season he played that many snaps, and he will surely be matched up in coverage against Thomas as often as Thomas is on the field.
There are a bunch of injuries I didn't even get to, with New England missing receivers Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson and safety Adrian WIlson, while the Broncos will lack D-Linemen Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe, MLB Stewart Bradley, and CB Chris Harris. There will be a lot of good players on the field Sunday in what looks like an excellent game, but imagine how good it could be if there were fewer players watching in street clothes.