As of 11:00 Eastern Time on October 3rd, the Patriots were set to face the defending champion Chiefs at 4:25 on Sunday in the NFL’s game of the week. The world braced for Bill Belichick and his new quarterback to take on the best of the best.
At 11:05 that same morning, everything changed. Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19, along with Chiefs’ practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. And then came the questions. Were there other positive tests? Would the game even happen? How would the NFL respond after postponing the Steelers-Titans game earlier in the week?
Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, those questions were answered, for better or worse. Before the game even began, we learned maybe the most important lesson of the week.
The NFL will do whatever it takes finish this season.
The league conducted another round of tests on Sunday morning, which all came back negative. Teams are not normally tested on game day, but the NFL made the necessary exception. The Monday round of tests returned the same negative results across the board, and the game was on.
Did the NFL make the right call in playing the game as planned? Did this decision contradict their actions taken towards the Steelers and Titans matchup? Would the virus spread among the Patriots and Chiefs even further? We are still awaiting the test results following last night’s 26-10 Chiefs victory, so only time will provide the answers to these critical questions.
As for the game, what did we learn?
Cam Newton is the Best Quarterback on the Patriots, and it’s not close
This may seem obvious following Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham’s combined 20-37, 172 yard, one-touchdown, three-interception performance. However, let’s not forget the speculation surrounding the Patriots’ quarterback room this preseason. The hype around second-year Auburn product Jarrett Stidham was palpable. Was Cam Newton really going to join this team, on short-notice, in a new offense, and supplant Stidham from the top of the depth chart? From the day you-know-who announced his decision to go south, all eyes were on Stidham. Cam Newton was the new kid in school. There were even rumors of Bill Belichick adopting a two-quarterback system. Yeah, right.
Brian Hoyer started the game for New England. Behind Newton, he spent the most time with the first-team offense, so it made sense. Was the Patriots’ offense prepared to deviate from their Newton-centric game plan that they spent a week perfecting? This is how the Patriots offense performed on the opening two drives:
- Three plays, nine yards, punt – 1:26 of possession
- Five plays, twenty-one yards, punt – 2:29 of possession
The third drive didn’t go much better. Hoyer air-mailed a throw to tight end Ryan Izzo on the first play and was intercepted. At the end of the half, Patriots could’ve tied or gone ahead. Instead, Hoyer took a 13-yard sack and watched the clock expire as he tried to call a timeout which they didn’t have. The reactions of the Patriots’ sideline tell the story.
Some clear frustration on the Patriots' sideline after Brian Hoyer took a sack to end the first half. Every coach had the same reaction. pic.twitter.com/9QIrXJEWT1
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) October 6, 2020
Hoyer made matters worse after marching 69 yards inside the Chiefs ten yard line, only to fumble the ball away. Stidham replaced him on the next drive, who promptly marched down the field. His first drive resulted in a dazzling corner fade to N’Keal Harry, for the wideout’s first touchdown of 2020, and the quarterback’s first of his career.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 6, 2020
And yet, the mistakes continued. Stidham threw interceptions on each of his next two drives, the first coming via an unforgivable drop from Julian Edelman that landed right in Tyrann Mathieu’s lap that he returned for six points. Jarrett Stidham may have a future, but the present belongs to Cam Newton. And the only reason this game didn’t get out of hand is simple: the defense.
The Defense is For Real
The Patriots defense currently ranks 9th in the NFL, allowing 23 points per game through four weeks. And that includes games against the 2nd, 9th, and 10th best scoring offenses. According to the broadcast, last night marked only the third times a Mahomes-led Chiefs offense failed to score a touchdown in the first half. Cam Newton’s absence may have punctuated his importance on offense, but so far, the drastic defensive makeover hasn’t swayed Bill Belichick in the slightest.
With credit to CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar, Belichick has kept Patrick Mahomes on his toes in each of their four meetings:
Fourth time BB has played Mahomes and he's basically had four different plans:
Game 1 – heavy man pressure (zero blitzes)
Game 2 – man 76% of time with no blitzing (five-man rushes)
Game 3 – cover-2 on early downs/man on third (five-man rush)
Game 4 – drop 7/8 into zone
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 6, 2020
The Chiefs scored six points in the first half. Two field goals, no touchdowns. They drove 70 and 75 yards on their two scoring drives but managed just 23 yards and a turnover on the other three. They didn’t find the end zone until late in the third quarter, and even that was off a New England turnover. Devin McCourty let a certain interception fall through his grasp on the opening drive. Stephon Gilmore forced a crucial fumble following a Patriots’ turnover. And then the defense forced either a fumble or an interception on what was called a sack, even though Patrick Mahomes released the ball and was not down. The reality of this situation remains painfully unclear, but it should have been a turnover.
Belichick said he didn't throw a challenge on Calhoun's INT because it was a play that can't be reviewed. Asked if Corrente made it clear he had called Mahomes in the grasp, Belichick deferred to the ref.
Belichick wouldn't say if he knew Corrente's call before the Chiefs punted
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) October 6, 2020
Bottom line: The Patriots’ offensive miscues will reflect a much worse defensive performance than what actually happened.
There are many positives to draw from last night. Damien Harris is one of them, rushing for 100 yards on 17 carries in his de-facto Patriots’ debut. The defense once again proved it can hang with the league’s top-tier offenses. The Patriots beat themselves more than the Chiefs did.
The Patriots will return home to host the Denver Broncos at 4:25 next Sunday, provided they make it through the week with no further setbacks. But even if they don’t, they still might just play anyways.
–Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @_EthanRoy