Vince Wilfork has shown off his versatility in recent weeks, playing a handful of games at defensive end as well as at his traditional nose tackle position. With Jarvis Green and Ty Warren both listed as inactives on the Patriots' injury report, Wilfork might have to show off that ability again.
The Patriots are down to four healthy defensive linemen -- and one of those is rookie Ron Brace, a second-round pick whose limited use this season doesn't exactly scream out that the coaching staff has confidence in him. This means the Patriots could go one of three ways:
* They could play their traditional 3-4 scheme with Mike Wright at one end and either Wilfork at the nose or Myron Pryor at end or vice versa;
* They could go back to the 4-3 they played earlier this season with Wright and Wilfork at defensive tackle flanked by Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess at defensive end, leaving Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas to take most of the snaps at linebacker; or
* They could play most of the game in a nickel or dime formation with Brandon McGowan as a fifth defensive back in place of a true defensive lineman.
It's an interesting dilemma. Banta-Cain has played his best football when he's been lined up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 formation, and Thomas likewise seems to have turned a corner since the Patriots went back to that same formation.
But if the Patriots were to play a true 3-4, any injury along the defensive line would force Brace into an every-down role -- and two injuries would force the Patriots to start playing their linebackers out of position.
The presence of Dallas Clark likely means McGowan will see the field on almost every snap -- especially in passing situations. The best solution might be for Wilfork and Wright to handle the bulk of the duties on the defensive line by themselves and for the Patriots to use their linebackers and defensive backs both in coverage and to send blitzers at Peyton Manning from every direction.
In a lot of ways, the deactivation of Green and Warren makes the Patriots just a little bit more unpredictable -- and that actually could give them an edge.