The Patriots on Saturday downgraded five players to out for Sunday's game against the Broncos: wide receiver Deion Branch, running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Brandon Spikes, safety Patrick Chung, and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Among the downgrades, Branch not playing could have the biggest impact. He did not finish Sunday's game in Washington with a groin injury, and was limited in practice this week, listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.
Without Branch, one storyline will be how playing time at receiver opposite Wes Welker is split between likely options Tiquan Underwood and Chad Ochocinco. The Patriots also have Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater on the roster at the position, but both players' main contributions have come on defense and special teams.
Like Branch, both Vereen and Spikes were listed as questionable on the injury report. Vereen will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury, while Spikes, who returned to practice last week, will have to wait at least another week to return from a knee injury that has kept him out since Nov. 6.
Chung (foot) and Vollmer (back/foot) were listed as doubtful on the injury report, after both did not practice all week. Chung was spotted in Boston on Friday night after the team departed for Denver, while Vollmer was also not expected to make the trip. Vollmer will miss his third straight game, while Chung will be out for his sixth consecutive contest.
Nate Solder will likely receive the start again at right tackle in Vollmer's place, while without Chung, the team's top options at safety remain James Ihedigbo, Nate Jones, and Matthew Slater.
Center Dan Connolly (groin), who has missed the last three games, was not downgraded, and thus traveled with the team to Denver. Connolly's possible return would crowd the center position, as Nick McDonald and Ryan Wendell split playing time in Connolly's place for Sunday's win in Washington.
Meanwhile, as expected, the Patriots have promoted safety Ross Ventrone from the practice squad to fill the open spot on the 53-man roster created when cornerback Malcolm Williams was waived on Thursday.
Head coach Bill Belichick said on Friday that the team would add someone to the roster who "would be able to contribute more than [Williams]" and "somebody we feel could help us in the game." Williams played on three special teams units in Sunday's win over the Redskins, so if Ventrone's contributions would top that, it will be interesting to see if Ventrone has an unexpected role on defense, in addition to his expected contributions on special teams. Ventrone played on three special teams units in his last game on the 53-man roster (Nov 21. vs. Kansas City).