By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The nightmare that was the Patriots' last two weeks came to a fitting conclusion on Sunday, as the team fell to the Denver Broncos 18-12 with a flat performance.
It's not that the Broncos brought a mass of talent into Foxborough. Denver has some good young players (Drew Lock looked excellent until the final five minutes), but their roster didn't present any challenges that the Patriots haven't seen before.
Nor was it a case of a team coming into the vaunted halls of Gillette Stadium and all 53 players turning in the best performance of their lives. We've seen that happen once or twice, but it wasn't the case on Sunday.
Instead, it was the Patriots other opponent that tripped them up time and time again on Sunday. The opponent they've been up against for the last two weeks, and really the last seven months. It was that underlying element, the realities of trying to do business as usual in the COVID-19 world, that time and time again reared it's ugly head.
There was a lot of talk leading up to the game about how the Patriots would coast against Denver. That talk heated up after the second rescheduling, which pushed kickoff back an entire week. Not only would the Patriots get back their best player on each side of the ball, but Bill Belichick would get an extra week to prepare - a situation where he rarely loses.
The reality though is that the 'extra week' was a fallacy. If anything, the Patriots were working on a time crunch.
Since the Patriots learned of Cam Newton's positive COVID test on the night of October 2, the Patriots have held just one true practice and two walkthroughs. That's less time on the field than a team would have in preparing for the typical Thursday night game.
"We need more time together, we need to practice together, we need to execute and do everything better. No question about that," Bill Belichick told reporters after the loss. " It was a big challenge. Playing without guys, getting guys hurt, moving around, had some guys that hasn't played together much, hadn't practiced together much. So we need to get on the field, we need to practice, we need to develop some continuity as a team."
Nowhere did that lack of continuity show more than on the offensive line. Working with a patchwork group, the Patriots struggled to get any push up front in either the running or passing game. After Jermaine Eluemunor left the game with an injury the Patriots had just two Week 1 starters remaining (Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn), and both were playing out of position.
Maybe if the group had some time to work together things wouldn't have been so bad, but virtual meetings can only do so much. Football is a physical, reactionary game, and can't be simulated on a computer. At a certain point, guys need to tangibly work together in order to perfect things like chemistry and communication.
"Oh, without a doubt," Cam Newton replied when asked if he felt any rust on Sunday. Matthew Slater echoed that sentiment as well.
"Unfortunately, we didn't get on the practice field, that’s tough," the Patriots captain said after the game. "I think this year more than any other year practice is so, so vital."
Granted, those and similar comments from other players were followed by stressing that "there are no excuses," something that has been preached from Belichick on down for the last two weeks.
"No excuses" is a great mentality, frankly more people should subscribe to that way of thinking. But sometimes excuses are really just reality.
Not only have the Patriots held just two competitive practices in the entire month of October, but they lost a number of key players between the final one and Sunday's game. Guard Shaq Mason and center James Ferentz were both present for the only full-speed session before the Patriots played the Broncos, but were added to COVID reserve and weren't available. So not only was the team down two starting offensive linemen before kickoff, but their backups never got a chance to get reps with the first team.
In total the Patriots were missing eight starters for Sunday's game, and that's not including the seven others they lost before the season as COVID opt outs. It's not an excuse to point out that Bill Belichick only had a shell of the roster he build this spring at his disposal against Denver.
There was also a complete difference in the mentality of each sideline. The Broncos felt slighted from the first time the game was delayed. They came into Foxborough fired up and ready to prove a point. On the other side, you had the Patriots clearly trying to find their footing after an emotionally trying two weeks. Some players were even wearing masks on the sideline when not on the field. This likely didn't help lessen the cloud hanging over the game - a cloud that had nothing to do with the result on the field but rather getting through the day safe and healthy.
This was a game the Patriots were set up to lose two weeks ago before it was rescheduled. From losing players seemingly daily, to the ones who were replacing them not being able to work with the rest of the roster, it was always going to be a mess. Despite what Allen Iverson may tell you, practice matters (real practice, not video chatting). There's no better evidence than the Patriots' performance on Sunday.
"But the Titans didn't practice and they blew out the Bills!" Oh really? So all of them getting together at that high school field wasn't to work out? What were they doing, signing yearbooks? We know now that the Titans didn't take the virus seriously, unlike the Patriots. Players have raved all week about Bill Belichick putting the safety of them and their families first. Is it worth the tradeoff to have a performance like that? They seem to be okay with it.
"We're close [to winning], but we got to find ways to win games and we got to do it right away," Devin McCourty said, in reference to playing through the virus.
"Our situation, certainly, in light of others is not all that bad, but still I think it's not easy for guys with kids and families," Matthew Slater noted. "Look, we made a decision, we have to be responsible, we have to be selfless with what we do inside and outside of the building and then we have to commit ourselves to our craft."
I stated at the beginning that the two-week long COVID-dominated football news cycle 'came to and end' on Sunday. That's probably more wishful thinking than a concrete proclamation. The virus doesn't know the difference between Week 6 and Week 7. It doesn't understand that the NFL is now walking a schedule tightrope, throwing out so much flexibility in the first quarter of the season.
It's probably going to be a bit until we're done with spontaneous canceled practices and talking about things like 'COVID reserve' and rescheduled games - especially here in New England. Of course, at it becomes more routine teams will learn and adjust. They'll figure out what works and what doesn't. But 'normal' is a long way away. It's going to be rough, even ugly at times, as long as the limitations of the pandemic are still in place.
But hey, it beats no football at all. Right?
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].