FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A healthy defense would have trouble against Peyton Manning.
So when six starters are sidelined, the task becomes much tougher.
The New England Patriots might find themselves in that predicament Sunday night when Manning leads the Denver Broncos and their NFL-best offense into Gillette Stadium.
“It’s definitely a high-potent offense that we’ll be facing this week,” starting safety Steve Gregory said Wednesday. “We are battling having a lot of guys that are hurt and banged-up, but it’s that time of the season where those type of things happen.”
Gregory is one of those guys.
A broken right thumb kept him out of the 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night and his status for the Denver game is unknown. Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also was sidelined with a knee injury, and is expected to miss Sunday night’s game.
Aqib Talib, the other starting cornerback, returned against the Panthers after missing three games with a hip injury, but couldn’t finish the game.
“I tried to go through it as much as I can,” he said, “but if I could have been out there, I’d have been out there.”
The Patriots (7-3) also have three of their best defenders on season-ending injured reserve: defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
So they started rookie free agents Chris Jones and Joe Vellano at defensive tackle and third-round draft pick Duron Harmon at safety against Carolina.
But the Patriots emphasize creating depth, so the injuries in the secondary might not keep them from playing with similar alignments than they would use if the regulars were healthy.
“We’ll do what we think is best for the game, regardless,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Against the Panthers, backup cornerback Kyle Arrington let Ted Ginn Jr., get free for the game-deciding 25-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds left.
The tall, speedy Talib was having an outstanding season with four interceptions before being hurt. He’s already played well against Vincent Jackson of Tampa Bay, Julio Jones of Atlanta, A.J. Green of Cincinnati and Jimmy Graham of New Orleans.
He struggled against Steve Smith of Carolina, but wasn’t at full strength.
If Talib plays against Denver (9-1), he’d have to cover Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker.
“He’s an excellent cover corner and he did an excellent job on Julio Jones,” Manning said. “That shows you the confidence they have in him. He is just a top-notch cover corner, great speed and great size.”
When the Patriots acquired Talib from Tampa Bay last season, they were able to move Devin McCourty to safety where he has been outstanding. Now McCourty is the only one of their top five defensive backs who was not limited in practice Wednesday.
That gave backups more plays during the workout.
“They’ve had some injuries, yet (with) kind of the next-man-up philosophy that you hear a lot of teams use, I’m not sure anybody does it better than them,” Manning said. “Somebody else pops in there and everybody else seems to kind of raise their level of play.”
They haven’t been doing that lately.
In the last three games, the Patriots have allowed nine touchdown passes: two by Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, four by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and three by Carolina’s Cam Newton. New England won two of those games.
Now the Patriots must face Manning, whose 34 scoring passes are eight more than any other quarterback.
“He does a phenomenal job of getting the ball out quick,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “He knows every single route, what’s going on. He’s changing the play at the line of scrimmage, trying to give their offense the best play against the defense. He’s been doing it a long time now, so we just have to make sure you don’t show anything early and just be smart.”
No matter how many defensive players are sidelined or slowed by injuries.
“You always want to be playing at 100 percent,” Gregory said. “You never like to deal with bumps and bruises, but it’s something that we have to deal with every day, trying to get better and trying to heal up.”