For the first time this season, New England would be without its starting quarterback, Cam Newton, who's dealing with the coronavirus. And for the first time ever, to the best of my knowledge, the Patriots were forced to travel to an away game on the same day they'd play it.
Heading into Week 4, Bill Belichick's club was already a decided underdog on the road to the reigning Super Bowl Champion Chiefs. These two unforeseen developments only made the task of beating Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium all the more challenging.
The news of positive COVID-19 tests resulted in the NFL moving the game to Monday night at 7 p.m. Eastern (6 o'clock local time). So, instead of arriving late Saturday afternoon, getting a good night's sleep, and kicking off at 4:25 Eastern on Sunday, as was the plan as of this past Friday, the Patriots were forced to wake up extra early on Monday, get tested as a team in Massachusetts, await the rapid results (all negative), fly to Kansas City, and spend the entire afternoon waiting around for kickoff. Far from ideal or normal conditions under which to operate.
"Very unique situation, starting from Saturday morning," QB Jarrett Stidham acknowledged afterward. "We had to maneuver some things and figure some things out, but as a team, we were ready to go here today, came in with a great attitude, and tried to win a ball game. I thought we played really hard."
"It was a whirlwind for all of us," remarked QB Brian Hoyer, who started the contest for New England in place of Newton. "That's what the job is. When you get called to go, you've got to be ready to go. A lot of people in 2020 are dealing with a lot of crazy things, ups and downs. We signed up for this. This is the way it played out."
Further complicating matters for New England, the loss – at least for this game – of starting right guard Shaq Mason due to a calf injury that limited him in last week's practices.
The Patriots best hopes of beating the Chiefs at Arrowhead (with or without Newton at QB) rested in a ball-control approach offensively – namely, run the ball effectively, as they had in two of the previous three games, thereby milking the game clock and limiting the number of opportunities for Kansas City's high-octane offense. Defensively, play tough and cause turnovers. Essentially, make it an ugly affair.
A reshuffled O-line would not have been the preferred way to go about this. However, New England found itself having to replace not only starting center David Andrews for the second straight week (hand injury), but also Mason, who was deactivated for Monday night's game only 90 minutes prior to kickoff.
The Patriots chose to go with a combination of their best and most experienced available O-linemen. Joe Thuney, last week's Andrews replacement, went back to his normal left guard position. His substitute last week, rookie Mike Onwenu, took over for Mason at right guard this week, while veteran James Ferentz started at center. Coincidentally, his only other start at center came last season for New England against K.C.
The Patriots also had to deal with the loss of RB Sony Michel to Injured Reserve (quadriceps muscle) earlier in the day. Second-year man Damien Harris came off IR, though, just in time to make it a wash.
Despite those challenges, the Patriots ran the ball well yet again, with Harris hitting exactly 100 yards on the night, including a dazzling 41-yard jaunt.
"First and foremost, we didn't win the game, and that's what's most important," Harris emphasized in his post-game comments to reporters. "We didn't play well enough, so, that was disappointing… but it was exciting getting back out there with the guys. The O-line, they blocked their butts off today. They opened up some holes and made life easier for me. But, ultimately, not coming out with the win was disappointing."
At the outset, the Patriots' defense allowed the Chiefs to move the ball virtually at will on the game's opening drive, but once K.C. got into the New England red zone, the D stiffened and held the Chiefs to a Harrison Butker field goal. Both clubs then traded three-and-outs.
New England kept it close by making life miserable for the Chiefs. A should've-been INT by safety/co-captain Devin McCourty turned into just three K.C. points (the aforementioned by Butker). A Hoyer INT resulted in the Chiefs turning it right back over with a fumble deep in New England territory.
The Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes Chiefs normally rule the second quarter, often scoring as many as 21 points in those 15 minutes, but New England's defense pressured Mahomes (led by edge rusher Chase Winovich), got physical with Kansas City's receivers, and mixed up their coverages, which frustrated Mahomes and Co. The Patriots managed to hold the Chiefs' offense scoreless – yes, scoreless – in the second quarter. The last team to prevent Kansas City from scoring a first-half TD? The Patriots, here at Arrowhead, in the 2018 AFC Championship Game.
"I think we played physical with them, with their receivers, challenged them each and every play, and we got a rush on the quarterback," observed CB Stephon Gilmore. He and his defensive mates limited the Chiefs to less than 100 yards rushing total on the night.
"With everything going on, we were able to come out here, play the game, and fought tough," McCourty maintained, "but obviously, it didn't go our way."
Meanwhile, Hoyer has started plenty of NFL games throughout his 12 seasons in this league, but this would be his first ever for the Patriots, coming in his third stint with the team since making the club as an undrafted rookie in 2009.
Yet, as experienced as Hoyer is in this league, he made a rookie mistake as the final seconds ticked off the clock before halftime. With no timeouts left and deep in K.C. territory, the Patriots needed to stop the clock with a pass completion out of bounds or an incomplete pass. They could then kick a field goal to knot the score at 6, but Hoyer held onto the ball too long and was sacked. Time expired and the score at intermission remained 6-3, advantage Chiefs.
Hoyer and the O further squandered the chance for a double-score by going three-and-out after receiving the ball to start the third quarter. Again, though, New England's D stifled Mahomes and forced them to punt.
Midway through the third, the Patriots found a rhythm on offense, both on the ground and through the air, to get within the shadow of the Kansas City goal line. Once more, alas, Hoyer took an ill-timed sack and coughed up the football. The Chiefs recovered and capitalized.
Mahomes drove his offense 85 yards in just seven plays, with speedster Tyreek Hill finding the pylon of the end zone on a jet sweep-drop pass for the game's first touchdown.
"Yeah, it's disappointing. You never want to get taken out of a game," Hoyer admitted, "but Coach [Belichick] made the decision. I understand. Two bad decisions [by me] down in the red area really cost us points. So, it's frustrating, it's disappointing. I've got to do a better job… I cost us at least six points."
Thereafter, second-year man Stidham took over for Hoyer and handed off to Harris on consecutive plays that gained a combined 50 yards and brought the third quarter to a close.
A few plays later – after a pass interference penalty by Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu negated his would-be end zone interception – Stidham tossed a lovely fade pass to WR N'Keal Harry for a counter-punch touchdown. Nick Folk's ensuing extra point made the score 13-10, K.C. in the early fourth quarter.
"N'Keal made a heck of a play in the back of the end zone… Obviously, I was really excited to get the opportunity to play football with the guys," Stidham stated. "I just wanted to come in and move the chains and give us a shot to score some points."
Mahomes responded with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive, connecting on another drop-pass, this one to WR Mecole Hardman. A missed PAT by Butker made it 19-10, Chiefs, with only half a quarter left. Very next play from scrimmage, however, Stidham's pass to the flat to Julian Edelman bounced off the receiver's hands and into Mathieu's. The K.C. safety raced 25 yards for a pick-six that, for all intents and purposes, ended the game. When Stidham's desperation heave into the Chiefs' end zone on the next drive was picked off again, that sealed it.
Undermanned and seemingly overwhelmed, the Patriots nevertheless put forth a valiant effort for three-plus quarters against the defending NFL champions on the road.
"It was disappointing," Belichick conceded moments after the final whistle. "We had some opportunities and didn't take advantage of them… we competed hard, just didn't make enough good plays."
"It's frustrating that we couldn't pull out the win," added Stidham, "but we can definitely learn [from it] and get better."