The New England Patriots entered the weekend expecting to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the marquee Sunday afternoon time slot.
It was set to be the most compelling matchup on the NFL’s Week 4 slate — Patrick Mahomes and the undefeated defending Super Bowl champs hosting a 2-1 Patriots squad led by a resurgent and highly motivated Cam Newton.
Would Newton, an early Comeback Player of the Year favorite, be able to lead his new squad to an upset win at Arrowhead Stadium? Would New England’s new-look defense — a unit missing half of its 2019 starters — be able to slow down KC’s juggernaut offense?
By noon on Saturday, Patriots fans were asking a different question: Would this game even be played?
The answer, as of Monday morning, was a tentative “yes.” But the Patriots will be without their starting quarterback.
Newton tested positive for the coronavirus late Friday night and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 the following day. His timetable to return is unclear — he was asymptomatic as of Sunday afternoon, according to multiple reports, which means he could be back as early as Thursday — but he’ll be unavailable for this week’s game, at the very least.
With Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu also testing positive, the NFL postponed the game to allow both teams to undergo additional testing. After those follow-up tests yielded zero positives Saturday or Sunday, the league set a new kickoff time: 7:05 p.m. ET on Monday night.
Every member of the Patriots will undergo one additional rapid test Monday morning. If those tests come back negative, they’ll fly to Kansas City.
(UPDATE, 7:50 a.m. ET: Those tests did, in fact, come back negative, per multiple reports.)
That brings us to the game itself, which would have been difficult enough for New England under normal circumstances.
Before Newton’s positive test, oddsmakers had his team pegged as seven-point underdogs. That line now is up to 11 points. It’s the most any Patriots opponent has been favored by since Super Bowl XXXVI — when New England beat the St. Louis Rams as 14-point ‘dogs — and just the third time a Bill Belichick-coached Pats team has ever gotten more than 11 points on a game spread. (The other instance: Tom Brady’s first NFL start in 2001. Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts were favored by 11 1/2 in that one.)
And that’s no surprise. This will be an immensely challenging matchup for the Patriots for myriad reasons.
Chief among them: the quarterback change. With Newton out, the Patriots are expected to start veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer, who won the top backup job over second-year Jarrett Stidham in training camp.
Hoyer has plenty of experience in the Patriots’ system, but this will be the first time he’s actually started a non-preseason game in a New England uniform. In his last 10 starts — across stints with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears — he’s 0-10. In the one he made last season in place of an injured Jacoby Brissett, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions.
Hoyer also is much closer to Brady than Newton on the mobility spectrum, so coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to remove the read-option/QB run elements that have helped make New England’s offense efficient and unpredictable this season. That means overhauling this week’s game plan — and having no opportunities to rep the new one on the practice field.
If the 34-year-old Hoyer struggles, we could see a relief appearance from Stidham, who dropped to the bottom of the depth chart after suffering a hip injury early in camp. Stidham played only in garbage time as a rookie and has been inactive for all three games this season.
Beyond the swap behind center, the Patriots also will need to contend with a grueling same-day travel schedule — teams typically fly out one or two days before road games — while the very real possibility of additional players testing positive in the days to come (as happened with the Tennessee Titans this week) hangs over them like a stormcloud.
Oh, and once they arrive, they’ll face a Chiefs team that just pummeled the Baltimore Ravens a week ago and hasn’t lost a game since last November. Kansas City boasts arguably the NFL’s best quarterback in Mahomes, an elite coach in Andy Reid, the league’s deepest collection of skill players (receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire) and a defense that features game-changers up front (defensive tackle Chris Jones) and in the secondary (safety Tyrann Mathieu).
To have a chance at victory Monday night, the Patriots will need to:
1. Deliver a similar defensive performance to the one they staged last December, when they held Mahomes and Co. to three points and 57 passing yards after halftime in a 23-16 Chiefs win at Gillette Stadium. We dove into that matchup — including how Edwards-Helaire could complicate the Patriots’ plans — in much greater detail last week.
2. Hope Hoyer takes care of the football and avoids turnovers.
3. Run the football the way they did last week against the Las Vegas Raiders, when Newton accounted for just 27 of their 250 rushing yards and they possessed the ball for nearly 35 minutes. Run defense has been the Chiefs’ greatest weakness this season; they rank 27th or worse in rushing yards allowed per game, yards allowed per carry and run defense DVOA.
On that final point, it’s easy to forget after the events of this weekend that running back Sony Michel, who gashed Vegas for 117 yards on just carries, is listed as questionable with a hamstring injury. It’s still unclear whether he’ll suit up for this game, and whether the Patriots will activate second-year back Damien Harris off injured reserve. New England will have James White back after his two-game absence, and Rex Burkhead is coming off one of the best games of his career.
You can never truly count out a team as accomplished and well-coached as the Patriots. That’s surely the message Reid is stressing to his players as kickoff approaches. But it’s going to take a transcendent coaching job from Belichick and McDaniels to pull this one off.