The New England Patriots' sputtering loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday should have come as no surprise. The lack of rhythm and energy, the misfires and mistakes -- these are the kind of things that happen when a team has only one real practice in two weeks while having its routine and roster otherwise upended by positive COVID-19 tests and the protocols they trigger. That's not an excuse for the Patriots. But their struggle does underscore how impressive the Tennessee Titans were in their demolition of the Buffalo Bills after their own two-week shutdown amid a team-wide coronavirus outbreak that engulfed nearly two dozen people.
"We need more time together, we need to practice together," Bill Belichick told reporters after the 18-12 loss to Denver dropped New England to 2-3. Later, he added, "hopefully we'll be able to practice this week. We certainly need it."
True, but while the Patriots looked ragged and the Broncos nearly blew a late lead with atrocious clock and game management, the Denver-New England tilt was the perfect microcosm for the season: twice delayed, with a COVID-recovered quarterback and cornerback playing and roster holes for both teams that arose all the way to the final hours before kickoff.
Each week this season feels like a walk across a high wire, with the NFL trying to make it to the next slate of games without a team being shut down or the entire schedule being thrown into a blender. After a wholesale remaking of the schedule last Sunday, this week's games have gone off as planned, which is not to say that the NFL has returned to the relative quiet of training camp and the first three weeks of the regular season. That, the NFL's chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills suggested this week, is probably too much to hope for with infection rates rising again throughout the country, including spikes in some cities that are home to NFL teams. Rather, keeping this game on -- keeping the entire Sunday schedule on -- was a marvel of testing, contact tracing and the NFL's determination to figure out how to safely play on, and we should get used to it.
In recent days, Denver's running backs coach Curtis Modkins tested positive and stayed back when the Broncos flew to New England. The Patriots put running back Sony Michel and guard Shaq Mason, among others, on the reserve/COVID-19 list this weekend. The Jaguars placed almost their entire practice squad on the list. The Atlanta Falcons worked remotely late this week after a player tested positive and took two planes to their game in Minnesota.
The late additions to the reserve/COVID-19 list in Foxborough almost certainly affected the Patriots' level of play. The offensive line, already in flux because of injury, lost Mason, causing even more shuffling and an inability to offer much protection to Cam Newton, who was himself returning from missing a game following a positive COVID-19 test. There has been no announcement about whether Mason and Michel tested positive themselves or were deemed high-risk close contacts of someone who did. The NFL put in place a new protocol this week requiring high-risk close contact exposures to isolate for five days. That creates roster holes for teams to manage on game days, but it limits the chance of spreading the virus within a team -- that is a tradeoff that might make for the kind of sloppy football we saw from the Patriots, but it is a tradeoff the NFL is now willing to make.
The Patriots certainly have more rudimentary issues to deal with, too. NFL Network's Mike Giardi has reported that they are managing receiver Julian Edelman, who made just two catches for 8 yards on Sunday, because of a lingering knee issue. Second-year WR N'Keal Harry, the team's first-round pick in 2019, was shut out, failing to make a catch on two targets. New England's getting almost no production from tight ends. The absence of firepower was apparent before COVID-19 befell the Patriots.
Still, the Patriots, like the Titans, are now an inadvertent poster team for what it will take to get through this season. The Titans were obviously more successful immediately following their layoff, but the Patriots' struggles might be a more realistic look at the toll playing through a pandemic will take on teams. It is worth paying attention to what happens in the coming weeks for the Patriots -- whether they get back on the practice field this week or not, can they steady themselves for the rest of the season?
The team's leadership is already grappling with the question.
"We made a decision that we were going to play this year and I think all of us understood the potential scenarios that existed when we opted in," said Patriots captain Matthew Slater in response to a question from Giardi about how the league and players' union handled the last two weeks. "And that doesn't mean that it's easy when you're faced with them, but we have to do the best that we can to remain committed to the choice we made to play football."
Later, Slater added: "I think a lot of this comes down to personal accountability. We have to maximize the time that we have with virtual meetings. If we've got to go out and run on our own, we have to run around. Look, this was a unique week, we get that, but we still had a chance to meet. We went over this game plan extensively. We prepared for Denver for two weeks. Unfortunately, we didn't get on the practice field, that's tough, but when we get on the practice field, we have to make it count. Mentally, I think you really have to be flexible and dial in (during) those virtual meetings, which I know is tough, but we've got to find a way to do it. And then we've got to maximize our windows when we get a chance to practice. I don't know what the future is going to hold. I don't know (how) next week is going to look, the week after that. We just got to live in the day today and try to maximize each day. "
There is almost no doubt that other teams will face similar circumstances in the weeks ahead. Tighter protocols mean more players are likely to be held out and rising infection rates around the country mean more players and coaches will test positive. The NFL is committed to playing a full season, whatever schedule massaging is necessary to accomplish it. It's up to teams to adjust to conditions that will almost certainly upset competitive balance. It is for fans and media to complain about whether that is fair. That is irrelevant. The NFL told teams during the offseason they would have to be flexible and adaptable.
For years, Belichick has been one of the best in the league at that, no matter what the opposition threw at New England.
A new and unpredictable opponent got the best of the Patriots this week.