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chad finn | unconventional preview

After difficult preparations, Patriots should get an easy win over the Broncos

Damien Harris could carry a lot of the load on the ground Sunday.
Damien Harris could carry a lot of the load on the ground Sunday.Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 5 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup.

The degree of difficulty in preparing for this game, the unprecedentedness of it all, has to be a challenge unlike any Bill Belichick has ever faced. And this is a guy who once had to coach a Browns team that was bolting to a different city the next season.

The Patriots and Broncos were supposed to collide last Sunday at 4:25 p.m., despite quarterback Cam Newton being sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2. Newton missed the Patriots' loss to the Chiefs on Monday, Oct. 5, a game that had been rescheduled from that Sunday because of concerns of further outbreaks among the Patriots.

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The concern was a legitimate one. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, tested positive the day after the Chiefs game. The Broncos game was then moved to Monday, Oct. 12, as the suddenly shorthanded Patriots prepared remotely, not even practicing until Saturday.

The Patriots' lack of prep time appeared to be a significant disadvantage, but it didn’t matter: When on Sunday morning defensive lineman Byron Cowart became the fourth Patriot (including Bill Murray, who is on the practice squad) to test positive, the game was postponed for a week, with the NFL ultimately changing eight games on the overall schedule.

The last two weeks have been fraught with chaos and uncertainty. But Patriots players have unilaterally praised Belichick for prioritizing their health above all else, even in light of another positive test.

Center James Ferentz was placed on the COVID-IR hours after the Patriots canceled practice Friday after receiving a positive test result. It is unconfirmed if Ferentz tested positive. Three more players joined Ferentz on the COVID-IR Saturday: running back Sony Michel, who was already on injured reserve, guard Shaq Mason, and defensive end Derek Rivers. Newton and Gilmore have been cleared to return, both returning to practice Thursday. While the Broncos surely would have preferred to play a Patriots team that had had minimal practice and would be playing without Newton and Gilmore, the extra time has had some benefits for them, too.

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Quarterback Drew Lock, who missed the previous three games with a shoulder injury, returned to practice this week and is expected to start. A Lock-Newton matchup has considerably more appeal than a Brett Rypien-Jarrett Stidham duel.

Another Bronco, former 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay (toe), could see an enhanced role after starting running back Melvin Gordon was arrested for driving while intoxicated earlier in the week and then came down with a non-COVID illness. He is out.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching

Julian Edelman: The stat, shared by ESPN’s Mike Reiss during the Chiefs game after a Stidham pass ricocheted off Edelman’s hands to Tyrann Mathieu for a clinching pick-6, confirmed what our eyes had just told us, and what they’ve been telling us for a while: Edelman has been letting too many catchable balls slip from his grip.

According to the info Reiss passed along from ESPN Stats and Info, Edelman has a league-high 11 drops since the start of last season. No other receiver has more than eight. Pro-football-reference.com’s data is even more damning; it has Edelman at 13 drops last season alone and two more this year, excluding the deflection to Mathieu.

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I’m not sure what the discrepancy is there, but the conclusion is the same. He’s not holding on to the ball as well as he should.

I’m not going to make the leap, however, to suggest it’s a telltale sign of aging or skill erosion, even at age 34. Edelman has been dealing with a knee issue, which it seems is the primary reason Belichick has limited his snaps this season (he played just 61 percent of the offensive snaps against the Chiefs). I don’t believe for a second it’s performance-based; in Week 2, he lit up the Seahawks for 179 yards on eight receptions.

Edelman has a favorable matchup this week against Broncos cornerback Bryce Callahan. There is no Patriots player who deserves the benefit of the doubt more. He’s getting it here.

Julian Edelman has let too many passes slip through his grip.
Julian Edelman has let too many passes slip through his grip.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Jerry Jeudy: The second receiver chosen in the 2020 draft, Jeudy went No. 15 overall, three spots after the Raiders took Alabama teammate Henry Ruggs. A quarter of the way into his rookie season, he has looked like a savvy pick by Broncos president John Elway.

Jeudy has 15 receptions for 234 yards and a touchdown, and the TD was a beauty, a 48-yard grab over Jets cornerback Pierre Desir that looked like it could have been clipped from a Randy Moss highlight film.

One request for the CBS broadcast team, though: Please don’t dwell on Jeudy’s route-running talents by showing that already too-familiar video of him going through footwork drills. On the Yeah I Already Knew That scale, it’s reaching Ryan Fitzpatrick-went-to-Harvard and Chris Hogan-played-lacrosse levels.

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Chase Winovich: Is it too soon to call him the breakout star of a Patriots defense that has handled assorted personnel changes remarkably well this season? I don’t think it is.

The second-year left defensive end leads the Patriots in sacks (2½), quarterback hits (6), and tackles for a loss (3), has forced a fumble, and is tied for fifth on the team with 14 tackles.

Rypien was not sacked in the Broncos' win over the Jets in Week 4, but Denver allowed 12 sacks in the two games previous to that, including 11 when Jeff Driskel was the quarterback for one full game and most of another.

Lock has been sacked just once in his two starts, but Winovich should raise that total.

Grievance of the Week

This week’s grievance actually isn’t specific to this week. It’s an absurd sentiment that was tweeted by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen at precisely 6:46 p.m. on Oct. 5. But it hasn’t ceased to annoy me since he hit the send button, with the sentiment — so premature and presumptive in the first place — being proven absurd over and over again as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with the NFL schedule.

Did you see this?

“From longtime team executive who says he echoes what many other team execs believe: @NFLCommish Roger Goodell has earned fair share of criticism over years but his leadership in managing the pandemic crisis and social justice issues have been his Hall of Fame moment.”

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I can’t decide which part is more offensive:

That Mortensen and NFL executives would talk about Goodell’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as if the league were in the clear, even though only a quarter of the schedule had been played. Or that NFL executives and complicit info-nugget traders in the media are already greasing the skids to foist Goodell into Canton someday.

Key matchup

Patriots guard/center Joe Thuney vs. the Broncos interior defense

Thuney was the focus here regarding the matchup with the Chiefs, and did he ever come through. Back at left guard after playing center the previous two games in the absence of David Andrews, Thuney and left tackle Isaiah Wynn anchored a mix-and-match line that included Ferentz at center, rookie Michael Onwenu at right guard (in place of Mason), and rookie right tackle Justin Herron (in for ailing Jermaine Eluemunor).

The result: Second-year back Damien Harris ran for 100 yards in his first career start, including a 41-yard run, and the Patriots chugged for a total of 185 yards on 35 carries, an average of 5.3 yards per pop.

The Chiefs knew they were going to run the ball with marginal veteran Brian Hoyer starting at quarterback, and the Patriots went out and did it anyway. Despite playing one fewer game than most teams because of last week’s bye, the Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in total rushing yards (719) while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The success of the running game belongs on the short list of the most positive developments this season.

On Thursday, Belichick cited the “very commendable job” the line has done this season despite the personnel shuffle. The Patriots may face even more changes on the line this week, with Ferentz and Mason on COVID-IR, Eluemunor dealing with a non-injury-related issue, and Wynn listed as limited with a calf injury.

But Thuney and friends should be able to plow open some lanes for Harris (good job, now do it again, kid) against a Denver defense that allows 109 yards per game on the ground and isn’t exactly reminiscent of the “Orange Crush” days of Randy Gradishar, Bob Swenson, and Tom Jackson. The Broncos' leading tackler is third-year linebacker Josey Jewell (30 tackles), who had started just 12 career games before this season.

Prediction

OR, YOU KNOW THAT WAS A TOUCHBACK, CHAMP BAILEY

Every five years or so, the Patriots take a loss that you never see coming. The ultimate example was the Browns' 34-14 win in November 2010, when the immortal Peyton Hillis ran for 184 yards and scored three total touchdowns and Colt McCoy (14 of 19 passing, 174 yards, a memorable rushing TD) for once lived up to his perfect quarterback name. There have been other stunners, including three or four against the Dolphins for some reason, but they’re few and far between.

Should the Broncos beat the Patriots, it would fall into that shocking win category. It’s hard to envision Lindsay or Gordon, if he plays, having consistent success against the 18th-ranked Patriots run defense (115.3 yards per game), which has been inconsistent at times but did a nice job bottling up the Chiefs' Clyde Edwards-Helaire (64 yards on 16 carries).

It’s harder still to envision Lock, coming off his injury and making his eighth career start, finding holes in the Patriots' talented pass defense (12th, 233.8 yards allowed per game).

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Newton is rusty. But the Patriots' running game should thrive even if the aerial game does not. The buildup to the game has been full of suspense. The game itself will not be. Patriots 31, Broncos 10.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.