Who will start at quarterback for the New England Patriots?
Will the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year be eligible to suit up?
How will the Patriots look after a week largely spent away from the practice field?
Four questions, one answer: We simply don’t know.
Uncertainties abound entering New England’s Week 5 matchup with the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium — a game that was pushed from Sunday afternoon to Monday evening after Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
That positive test prompted head coach Bill Belichick to close the Patriots’ facility and cancel three consecutive days of practice. The Patriots did not hold their first practice of the week until Saturday, then shut down again Sunday morning. The COVID-free Broncos, meanwhile, conducted business as usual.
How will these teams match up come Monday? Here’s what we’ll be watching for:
Time: Monday, 5:02 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Most sportsbooks understandably weren’t taking action on this game as of Saturday night. One big reason: It remains to be seen which QB will start for New England.
The 2-2 Patriots would be favored over the 1-3 Broncos regardless, but a Cam Newton-led Pats team is far more formidable than one piloted by Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer.
Annual foes during the Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning eras, the Patriots and Broncos have not faced each other since 2017, when New England beat a Brock Osweiler-led Denver team 41-16 at Mile High.
Despite unenviable and nearly unprecedented circumstances during the lead-up to the game, the Patriots stuck with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs last Monday, losing 26-10 at Arrowhead Stadium.
New England’s defense held Kansas City’s O to 19 points — its second-lowest total ever in a Mahomes start — but the Patriots couldn’t overcome four turnovers by Hoyer and Stidham. Hoyer also took an ill-advised sack late in the first half that robbed the Patriots of an easy field-goal try. He was benched for Stidham one quarter later.
The Broncos, who have been pummeled by injuries this season, knocked off the New York Jets 37-28 on “Thursday Night Football” to score their first win of the year.
If you include illnesses in this category, the two key names to watch for the Patriots are Newton and Gilmore. Neither practiced Saturday, but both could be cleared and added to the roster ahead of Monday’s game, assuming they meet the NFL’s return-to-play requirements.
Five players are listed as questionable for New England:
WR Julian Edelman (knee)
S Devin McCourty (not injury related)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
OT Isaiah Wynn (calf)
DT Adam Butler (shoulder)
McCourty missed practice Saturday but is expected to play. Running back Sony Michel, center David Andrews and rookie linebacker Josh Uche remain on injured reserve.
Denver listed seven players on its final injury report:
OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (quadricep)
RB LeVante Bellamy (knee)
TE Noah Fant (ankle)
WR KJ Hamler (hamstring)
ILB Joseph Jones (knee)
QB Drew Lock (right shoulder)
NT Mike Purcell (knee)
Lock, the Broncos’ second-year starting quarterback, was a limited participant in each practice this week after missing the team’s last two games. Fant is one of the NFL’s top young tight ends and a significant loss for Denver.
The Broncos also are without top wideout Courtland Sutton and star pass rusher Von Miller, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries.
Running back Phillip Lindsay is good to go after sitting out the last three games with a foot injury.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jarrett Stidham, Patriots quarterback
Belichick has revealed nothing about his plan at the quarterback position this week, but if Newton can’t go, we’d give the nod to Stidham. Hoyer’s mistakes last week were inexcusable for a player with his level of experience, and Stidham, while far from perfect himself, showed some flashes in the fourth quarter.
Remember, this is a guy who’s hardly received any first-team reps since the summer. Throw him out there and let’s see how he fares.
Drew Lock/Brett Rypien, Broncos quarterback
The Patriots aren’t the only team with a question mark at quarterback. It’s still unclear whether Lock will be healthy enough to return this week. If he’s not, it’ll be Rypien, who wasn’t an abject disaster against the Jets in his first NFL start. The 2019 undrafted free agent threw three interceptions — including an ugly pick-six in the fourth quarter — but piloted an offense that put up 37 points.
Either QB will face a stiff challenge on Monday. The Patriots won 24 consecutive games against first- and second-year quarterbacks until Lamar Jackson ended that streak last November. The last first- or second-year QB to win in Foxboro? Colin Kaepernick in 2012.
Damien Harris, Patriots running back
One clear bright spot in last week’s loss to the Chiefs was Harris, who, in place of an injured Michel, rushed for an even 100 yards on 17 carries in his first game off IR. Though he made a few late-game cameos last season, this was the 2019 third-rounder’s first NFL test, and he aced it.
Harris and the Patriots’ ground game will face a tougher matchup this week against a stingier Broncos run defense (13th or better in yards allowed per game, yards allowed per carry and DVOA).
Jerry Jeudy, Broncos wide receiver
John Elway has invested heavily in pass-catchers in recent drafts, but most of those players won’t be on the field Sunday with Sutton (second round, 2018), Fant (first round, 2019) and Hamler (second round, 2020) all sidelined.
One who will be is Jeudy, whose athleticism and superb route-running made him a star at Alabama. The 2020 first-rounder (15th overall) has yet to truly break out for Denver and has had trouble with drops, but he’s been reasonably and consistently productive thus far, tallying between 55 and 62 receiving yards in each of his first four NFL games. Belichick called the rookie “tremendous” this week.
Jeudy, who primarily plays in the slot, caught a highlight-reel touchdown pass in last week’s win over the Jets, but veteran wideout Tim Patrick was the Broncos’ top pass-catcher in that game (6-113-1). Overall, given their injury situation, this isn’t a particularly formidable receiving corps.
J.C. Jackson, Patriots cornerback
If Gilmore can’t go, Jackson would become the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback. He’s certainly not a bad second option.
Jackson enters Week 5 as the NFL’s fifth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus, allowing 10 catches on 13 targets for 52 yards and one touchdown through four games. He has one interception this season and should have had another against Kansas City.
Outside of that missed opportunity, Jackson, who led all NFL corners in passer rating against last season, was excellent Monday night, allowing just one catch on one target for 6 yards. He should be squarely in the Pro Bowl conversation if he keeps this up.