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Hurt by defensive injuries, Patriots face challenge vs. Broncos

New England Patriots middle linebacker Jerod Mayo walks

New England Patriots middle linebacker Jerod Mayo walks to the sideline after a Denver Broncos touchdown during the second half of an NFL game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Denver. Credit: AP / Joe Mahoney

Bill Belichick rarely divulges anything about injuries, so don’t expect the Patriots’ coach to offer much detail about his banged-up defense. But after getting some key offensive players back from injury in time for the playoffs, Belichick faces problems on the other side of the ball.

Three key defenders were forced to leave Saturday’s 27-20 win over the Chiefs, and there’s no telling what their availability will be for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Broncos in Denver.

Linebackers Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo left the game in the third quarter, Collins with a back problem and Mayo with a shoulder injury. Neither returned.

Defensive end Chandler Jones, who started despite having been treated for an unspecified medical emergency at the Foxborough police station the previous weekend, also left in the second half with a right leg injury and didn’t return. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who has been dealing with a knee injury since Week 12, was in and out of the lineup.

Somehow the Patriots patched things together well enough to hold off the Chiefs. Now the stakes get higher, and although Peyton Manning might not be as good as he once was because of age and his own injury issues, the Patriots will be challenged. Manning was able to overcome the Steelers’ defense, which finally wore down near the end of the Broncos’ 23-16 victory Sunday.

“It’s a testament to everybody,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “This whole team comes in and puts in a lot of work — injured guys, healthy guys, guys who haven’t played much. It’s all about how well you play against another good playoff team.”

Good coaching certainly helps, and Belichick is the best there is in today’s game. Or maybe in any era. That he’s able to continue winning with a revolving door of players — with the notable exception of quarterback Tom Brady — is the best indicator of just how good a teacher and motivator Belichick has been.

“Our depth at linebacker really came through [against the Chiefs], and like we talked about after the game, it’s one of those situations where everybody’s got to be ready to go,” Belichick said. “You never know how it’s going to go in the playoffs.”

The injuries on defense mean another collective effort will be needed against the Broncos. If the Patriots win, they will advance to their seventh Super Bowl of the Belichick era.

“It is what it is,” Belichick said. “It’s the National Football League. Every team has an injury report. We have a lot of tough guys in this room, on this team. They come to work every day. I know they’ll battle hard to be out there and give us everything they’ve got.”

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