For every argument people make about the Broncos being too depleted to win the Super Bowl, the same debate can be made for the Patriots.
Let’s begin with the Pats, who lost stud tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, their most impactful defensive player in recent years.
The Broncos were dealt season-ending injuries to starting offensive linemen Dan Koppen and Ryan Clady early on in 2013.
The injury bug then nagged the Denver defense, which now resembles nothing to what it was a year ago. Defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson, linebacker Von Miller, as well as safety Rahim Moore saw their seasons come to an early end.
Monday morning brought in the news that Chris Harris, the Broncos most consistent remaining defender along with counterpart Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, suffered a torn ACL in Denver’s divisional round win over the Chargers.
In years past, this kind of loss would be a death sentence for the Broncos.
But no, Tom Brady doesn’t have a deep threat like Randy Moss or a tight end to give safeties problems.
I’ll admit Julian Edelman might be a recreation of Wes Welker in five years. And Danny Amendola has been a solid option for Brady when healthy.
New England’s receiving threats end there, however.
Who would have thought that all six touchdowns the Pats scored Saturday against the Colts were via running the ball?
LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 38 carries, 218 yards and six touchdowns.
Brady, on the other hand, completed just 13 passes for 198 yards.
Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase apparently wanted to prove to Bill Belichick that his team could play big boy football too.
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball logged 33 rushes for 134 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers don’t compare well statistically to the Patriots backs, but consider that Peyton Manning only threw for 230 yards.
Don’t think for a second though that the AFC Championship game will be decided by which team runs the ball more effectively.
Both teams figure to trash the playbooks from last week and return to their pass-heavy attacks.
Initial weather forecasts project high temperatures in the 50’s with minimal wind.
Translation-First team to 40 wins.
Look for Brady and Manning to pick apart the opposing defense with relative ease. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker will have a field day. And Moreno should have a nice day both out of the backfield and catching passes.
Wes Welker may just give “Hoodie” a tizzy for letting him slip away to the Rocky Mountains.
On the other side of the ball, Brady will probably have another Brady-esque performance.
But there’s one guy that could be the difference in a Broncos win or loss: Champ Bailey.
Bailey could play multiple roles. He might continue to line up in nickel packages, playing opposite the slot receiver. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio could also shift him back to the outside, directly replacing Harris with the perennial Pro Bowler.
Kayvon Webster, Quentin Jammer and/or Tony Carter would fill the remaining corner spot.
The Broncos need the old Champ Bailey against the Pats. He hasn’t had a health setback in recent weeks, so I’m assuming he feels better than he has all season.
We all remember the 2005 AFC divisional game, when Bailey picked off Brady in the end zone and scampered 100 yards the other way.
That play catapulted the Broncos to a win against a New England team that was much better than the one they’ll see Sunday.
For what it’s worth, the most valuable players of the game will be the elder statesmen. Manning will throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Bailey will have his best game of the year.
My prediction: Broncos-41, Patriots-38