Some might say that this one was doomed from the start.
The matchup between the New England Patriots and the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs was originally slated for Sunday afternoon at 4:25pm at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. However, plans for that were quickly halted on Saturday, when the Pats’ confirmed that a player (later revealed to be starting quarterback Cam Newton) had tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that Kansas City’s practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu had also tested positive. The NFL was forced to postpone the game, and some wondered whether this highly-anticipated Week Four contest would take place.
Thankfully, additional tests conducted on Sunday and Monday mornings (including one taken at 6 a.m. ET on Monday) returned no additional positives from either team. It was a step in the right direction, for sure. However, it was far from the “all clear” validation that would seemingly be needed to demonstrate the belief that the League valued player safety above all else.
Still, it was all the NFL needed to hear.
It was ‘Game On!’
Monday Night, 7:05pm ET kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium.
Despite the tangible risk of players still yielding future positive test results, the NFL felt comfortable to mandate a team to travel…
…on game day
…via aircraft (in which the Patriots did so by using two separate airplanes; presumably to prevent the spread of a virus that apparently did not present enough of a threat to warrant a postponement)
And, with an approximate two-to-three-hour window (following landing at their destination) to eat, and meet with team personnel. Then…
…arrive at Arrowhead Stadium to prepare for a 6:05pm CT kickoff
…and repeat the process to return to New England in the early morning hours on Tuesday.
But hey…’Game On,’ right?
Despite this writer’s best attempt at raising awareness as to the ludicrous nature of that schedule, the New England Patriots will never use extenuating circumstances as an excuse for a loss. In fact, several Patriots players, in postgame statements to the media, echoed the following sentiment: “We need to be better.” In many ways, the Patriots accepted the “mea culpa’ nature of this Week Four loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
That was certainly true on one side of the ball.
Offensive “What Ifs”
Starting in place of Newton, veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer went 15 of 24 for 130 yards and an interception before getting benched in the Patriots’ 26-10 loss to the defending Super Bowl Champions on Monday night. That stat line has done little to endear him to Patriots Nation. However, Hoyer’s evaluation is compounded by the fact that his biggest problems were in the red zone. Two possessions, which should have resulted in field goals, ended with zero points and a sack. In the first case, Hoyer incredulously took a sack from Chiefs defender Frank Clark that ran the clock to end the first half. In the second case, he fumbled the ball on a strip sack, which the Chiefs converted into a touchdown.
That prompted Bill Belichick and the New England coaching staff to make the switch to Jarrett Stidham.
Stidham was far from perfect, but did exhibit some of the flashes that made him the early choice (by consensus) to succeed Tom Brady as New England’s top signal-caller.
Of course, that was before the Patriots signed Cam Newton, who was sorely missed by the Patriots, in this game.
Still, Stidham led the Patriots to a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to close to 13-10. Unfortunately, he also threw two interceptions, including a pick-six to Chiefs’ defensive back Tyrann Mathieu (which had slipped through the fingers of Julian Edelman) that propelled the Chiefs to their fourth straight 4-0 start.
On the bright side, running back Damien Harris finished the game with 17 carries for 100 yards. Despite the Chiefs knowing that the Patriots wanted to run the ball early and often with Newton out, Harris was still an efficient and powerful runner, in what essentially was his debut as a feature back in a Patriots uniform.
Defense Standing Strong
New England’s defense enacted a sound game plan in limiting the effectiveness of Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While Mahomes added 236 yards passing with two touchdowns, his performance was somewhat shaky — at least, by his standards. This was largely in part to the Patriots employing man-match coverage schemes, designed to help keep their coverage players stay leveraged on Kansas City’s receivers. (Credit to Evan Lazar, of CLNS Media for the eloquent way in which he described this.) Although the Mahomes and the Chiefs would connect on a couple of big yardage chunk plays, the Patriots would limit them to only three plays, in which they would amass more than 20 yards.
While New England had some past success in using a five-man rush against Mahomes, they only committed four (or fewer) pass rushers for the majority of this game. However, that would lead to some success for the Patriots front seven, particularly when limiting the Kansas City run game. The Pats received great efforts from Chase Winovich, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler, in setting the edge, and controlling Chiefs’ running back Clyde Edwards-Helarie, after a hot start. As a result, New England was able to put a fair amount of pressure on Mahomes, while holding the Chiefs to 3.8 yards per rush.
The Patriots defensive backs continued to show why they are still among the elite secondaries in the NFL. Stephon Gilmore enjoyed a bit of a return to prominence, assisting in New England’s zone for much of the game. In man-to-man coverage, he virtually shut down receiver Sammy Watkins. In what may have been the only defensive blemishes on the night, safety Devin McCourty and cornerback J.C. Jackson dropped sure-fire interceptions. On a night in which New England was going to need points and turnovers from their defense, missing the opportunity to intercept Mahomes proved to be costly.
Unfortunately, the Patriots defense did find themselves on the receiving end of a questionable officiating decision, which likely cost the team points in the closing moments of the second quarter. Edge defender Chase Winovich, who continues to shine, was able to beat Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher with an excellent move for a strip-sack on Mahomes. Linebacker Shilique Calhoun snagged the ball before it hit the ground, seemingly handing Mahomes his first interception of the 2020 season. Although it was clearly an interception by Shilique Calhoun forced by Winovich, the play was blown dead by the officials. In a post-game pool report, referee Tony Corrente said the ruling on the field was ‘forward progress’ as Mahomes was in the grasp. While many (in the moment) criticized Bill Belichick for not throwing the red challenge flag in this case, it is important to remember that a forward progress ruling cannot be challenged. As a result, the Chiefs were able to flip field position with a punt. New England did receive the ball. However, one is inclined to wonder whether or not the enhanced field position would have put the Pats in a better position to put points on the board?
In the final analysis…
One of the tenets of the New England Patriots organization is embodying the spirit of the phrase “Do Your Job.” The circumstances which surround that task are largely inconsequential. Whether it be injury, health, travel or shoddy officiating, the Patriots will not allow excuses to tell the tale of their on-field performance. To be honest, each of these were factors in the Pats’ loss to the Chiefs. However, New England continued to take responsibility for their own actions, despite the numerous external factors working against them. Fatigue and health concerns were likely weighing heavily on their minds. The team did not have any on-field practice time to allow them to game plan for an unexpected quarterback change. Are the Patriots ultimately to blame for their performance on the field? Absolutely. Still, lesser teams might have crumbled under the weight of the Week Four madness.
The manner in which they were to compete cannot be ignored, nor should the “what might have been” factor, had their starting quarterback been healthy.
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and Columnist for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and provides NFL editorial content. He is also the host of the Locked On Patriots podcast. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC