FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Normally, if you give the Patriots two weeks to prepare for an opponent, it's an advantage for New England. Not today, however. But give Denver credit. The Broncos, who stampeded through Foxborough with an 18-12 victory, did everything they could in the end to try and throw this game away, quite literally.
"We need to do everything better – offense, defense, special teams," head coach Bill Belichick lamented later. "There were some decent things out there today, but we let them into the red area too many times defensively, gave up too many long plays, and let them get into field goal range. It's always good to keep them out of the end zone. That's definitely the goal, but they scored more points than we did, so we need to play better defense and give up fewer and try to score more."
A week and three rescheduled moves later, the Patriots finally welcomed the Denver Broncos to New England for a 1 o'clock kickoff, as originally intended for Week 5, when the NFL schedule was released in the spring.
First, the league moved the game from 1 p.m. to 4:25 a few weeks ago to make the game available to a nationwide TV audience. Then, positive coronavirus tests starting coming back from New England, and the league pushed the game to this past Monday at 5 p.m. When even that turned out not to be feasible, a tentative-at-best move to today at 1 o'clock was agreed upon.
In the interim, the Patriots had a limited number of on-field practices because of being forced to shut down their facility several times as a result of those positive coronavirus tests.
"It's a little different, obviously, not getting a chance to practice [as much], but there's really no excuse," running back and co-captain James White declared afterward. "It's the world we're living in right now. There's a pandemic going on. So, things like this might happen. You have to find a way to adjust and be prepared to play. I thought we were prepared to play. We just didn't go out and play our best football."
"I make no excuses," maintained linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. "We all knew, going into this [season] that it would be adversity-filled, and we planned to take it on and continue to take it on… to the best of our ability. Obviously, there's room for improvement. We want the win."
This delayed matchup in Week 6 also impacted a number of other teams, who had to accommodate multiple games on their respective schedules to allow Denver and New England to square off at Gillette today as opposed to last Sunday.
Had the game gone on as planned last week, the lineups for both clubs would have looked much different at key positions. For instance, both starting QBs would have been out, New England's Cam Newton with COVID-19 and Denver's Drew Lock because of a right (throwing) shoulder problem. The Broncos would have had their best back, Melvin Gordon, who didn't suit up today because of either an illness (non-COVID, according to Bronco head coach Vic Fangio) or his DUI charge earlier last week. Most likely, the latter.
In any event, Denver came to Foxborough a lame stable of horses, particularly on offense. Lock was back, but he had to play without three playmakers – Gordon, TE Noah Fant (ankle), and rookie WR K.J. Hamler (hamstring). What's more, New England's defense welcomed back cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who, like Newton, was a positive tester last week ago and likely wouldn't have played.
"I feel good. I mean, I'm just upset that we lost the game," Gilmore acknowledged to reporters in post-game comments. "We made some plays, but it's a team game. They made more plays than we did. We win as a team and lose as a team. We lost today, so… that's how it went.
"There are things you can't control. It's out of your hands sometimes. At the end of the day, we're professional football players. We have to be able to go out and compete, not make excuses, and lay it all on the line for our teammates."
Even after placing four players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list just this past week and having to reshuffle its starting offensive line for the third straight game, the Patriots had to feel somewhat confident going into this game, what with having two weeks to prepare – albeit remotely at times. Yet, they came out looking lethargic in all areas.
"We need to get on the field and practice, need to develop some continuity as a team," added Belichick.
On the other hand, Lock and Denver had plenty of time to practice over the past two weeks. Sunday, they also had going for them running back Phillip Lindsay, who'd been out with an injury since Week 1. Lindsay ran effectively throughout the game, and early on, Lock took some shots throwing downfield. The Patriots appeared to get away with a couple of pass interference penalties that would have rewarded the Broncos with good field position. But New England's defense held its ground, allowing just a 45-yard Brandon McManus field goal.
When the Patriots had possession of the ball, they again focused on their ground game, as they had throughout the first four weeks of this season. But their execution was off and they made too many costly mistakes, including three turnovers.
For a guy as tall as the 6-5 Newton, he's gotten an unusually high number of passes deflected at the line of scrimmage this season. On his first attempt of the afternoon versus Denver, it happened again, only this time, an alert Bronco D-lineman, DeShawn Williams, managed to dive for the ball and collect it before it hit the ground. The resulting INT only cost New England three points, though, as the Patriots held Denver's offense to another long field goal by McManus. Midway through the first quarter, the Broncos led 6-0.
As noted earlier, the Patriots were already playing with another new-look O-line, thanks to COVID-19 and injuries. Down two centers, left guard Joe Thuney moved back into that spot, which he occupied in Week 3. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn slid over to Thuney's left guard position, while rookie Justin Herron, the Week 4 starter at right tackle, moved in to Wynn's left tackle spot. Rookie Mike Onwenu started at right guard in place of injured/coronavirus-listed Shaq Mason.
Matters got worse late in the opening quarter when starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemenor was lost with what looked like a very painful injury to his right ankle. Second-year man Hjalte Froholdt came in at right guard, moving Onwenu over to right tackle.
During that second quarter, the Broncos added two more field goals from McManus, while New England's longest drive of the half only netted the Patriots three points from a 41-yard Nick Folk field goal. Both points and yards were at a premium for the Patriots offense, allowing Denver to go into intermission with a 12-3 lead.
After the break, Wynn went back to his usual left tackle spot, flip-flopping spots with the rookie Onwenu. Yet, Newton still felt occasional pressure from the Denver D, and there didn't look like much hope of a New England comeback.
Following a fifth McManus field goal that put Denver up 15-3, it looked like New England was doing something good offensively. However, TE Ryan Izzo lost a fumble during his17-yard reception. The Broncos recovered and raced into Patriots territory. Nothing was going New England's way.
By the fourth quarter, all the Broncos needed to do was run the football, up 18-3 (yes, all points from the legs of the kickers at that stage). Yet, they couldn't. New England's D forced a Bronco punt, and after a long Newton scramble, the Patriots found themselves in a goal-to-go situation. A couple plays later, Newton reached the ball over the goal line for the game's lone touchdown, but a failed two-point conversion kept the score at arm's length, 18-9.
Again, with just half a quarter to play, Denver needed only run out the clock, but Lock was asked to throw and was picked off twice in the closing minutes. One of those INTs led to another Folk field goal, but that was as close as the Patriots would get on the scoreboard.
Following the second Lock pick, Newton drove his offense down to the Denver 24-yard line, where, on 4th-and-10, he was blitzed and delivered an errant pass to an open wide receiver N'Keal Harry deep in the Denver red zone. Three kneel-downs by Lock ended the game, and New England's record fell to 2-3.
"We're just dealing with things as they come, with news every day," Thuney observed. "At the end of the day, we have to put a 60-minute performance together and execute on Sundays. Just came a little short. Got to learn from this and move on."
"Yeah, there's no need to panic," Newton insisted, "but we for sure have an opportunity here that – we cannot allow ourselves to go through the motions and expect that we being who we are is going to take care of itself. Because that's not the case. We're not that good at that particular point yet. And we need, obviously, practice. Hopefully, everything else is halted from the COVID situation, which will allow us to do that. Whatever the situation is, we know we're not the only team that's being faced with it, and we have to be ready to go here moving forward."