ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Like Denver's defense, New England's looks nothing like its intended design, thanks to injuries.
The most damaging injuries were to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Both were lost before midseason, so neither one played against the Broncos in Week 12.
With gale-force winds howling, the Broncos opted to attack on the ground, which exposed a weak spot since Wilfork's season-ending torn Achilles tendon at Atlanta in Week 4. The Broncos' 280-yard night was atypical for the Patriots, but New England nonetheless ranked among the league's bottom third in yards allowed per carry and percentage of runs to gain first downs.
The Patriots' defense, by multiple measurements, has been at the middle of the pack. It's slightly better than the league average in permitting gains of 20 or more yards (one every 17.2 plays, compared to a league average of one every 16.9) and in yards allowed per pass play (6.00 yards; the league average is 6.21).
It is slightly below average in allowing first downs, permitting opponents to move the chains on 28.4 percent of their snaps, compared with a league average of 27.8 percent. The Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers are all above average in this metric.
The most troublesome statistic for the Patriots is that they have allowed teams to gain first downs 44.0 percent of the time after they face a third down (including third- and fourth-down conversions). This is eighth-worst in the league, and by far the worst of any playoff team. The league average is 41.4 percent; the Broncos, 49ers and Seahawks are all between 37.0 and 39.9 percent. New England's third-down defense is seventh-worst, and is the only below-average third-down defense remaining.
If the Broncos can create the third-and-short-to-moderate yardage situations that they enjoyed last week, they can cause the Patriots further frustration.
Third-and-shorts can also take the edge off the Patriots' pass rush. They rank seventh in the league in sack rate -- one every 13.3 pass plays -- but no team playing this weekend forces a lower rate of hurried passes, as measured by ProFootballFocus.com's hurry statistics, and New England's rate of one hurry every 3.58 pass plays is 25th in the league.
But the player who could render all of those middling numbers moot is rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who was disruptive in every way a linebacker can be in last week's 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts, posting a sack, an interception, two tackles for losses and three hits of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
"Collins is rangy," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. "You saw him make a couple of impressive coverage plays on a good tight end (Indianapolis' Coby Fleener) that they faced last week."
Added Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich: "Jamie is an unbelievable talent. He is very talented as far as athletic ability. He is very smart … The sky is the limit for him."
Collins is the potential game-changer for the Patriots, and if he is on his game again, this is a more problematic defense than the one the Broncos saw at Gillette Stadium in Week 12.