For the third week in a row, the Patriots head into the weekend having no idea if they will play a football game.
Two weeks ago, it was Cam Newton’s positive test for COVID-19 coming to light late Friday night, ultimately pushing Patriots-Chiefs back a day. Last week, it was Stephon Gilmore and two more players testing positive, forcing a one-week postponement of Patriots-Broncos.
This time, it’s backup center James Ferentz testing positive on Friday morning. It forced the Patriots to empty their team facility, and put Sunday’s game against the Broncos in doubt yet again. Ferentz practiced with his teammates on Thursday. The NFL is determining if Ferentz had any close contacts, or if he is an isolated case.
Get used to this feeling of uncertainty, football fans. The Patriots-Broncos game is still scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday in an empty Gillette Stadium, but there are no guarantees until a foot actually meets leather.
Playing through the COVID pandemic is getting messier by the week, with more cases popping up and a full-blown outbreak hitting the Titans. The NFL had 42 positive cases in 46 days (Aug. 12 to Sept. 26), and 41 more cases in the next 14 (Sept. 27 to Oct. 10). About a third of the league, including the Patriots, has recently been in the “intensive protocols,” which include stricter mask wearing and fewer people at the facility.
The NFL schedule is written in pencil this year. This Patriots-Broncos game has already been pushed back three times — first from 1 to 4:25 last Sunday, then from Sunday to Monday, then from Week 5 to Week 6. Broncos coach Vic Fangio said his team is getting used to switching up its schedule at a moment’s notice.
“Every time you get a rep with something, you get better,” he said.
The NFL really wants to play this game at 1 p.m. Sunday and just get it over with already — especially since both teams' byes were moved to last week, and the only other way to reschedule would be to create an extra week at the end of the season. The Broncos are itching to get back on the field after the unexpected break.
But the NFL also knows it doesn’t control the situation. It all depends on the Patriots' test results the next two days. There’s not much to do except cross fingers and hope for the best.
“We’re to assume and press forward as if we’re playing on Sunday until we’re told officially otherwise,” Fangio said. “Our guys were good with that.”
If Ferentz is an isolated case, or even if one or two other Patriots turn up positive, then the game should probably go on as planned. The whole point of the NFL developing facility protocols, a multi-million dollar system of testing and tracing, and increased roster flexibility, was so that the league wouldn’t have to shut down every time a positive case appeared. And the players all opted in to the season knowing full well that they could get infected.
But contact tracing and test results, not hopes and wishes, will drive the NFL’s decisions. If several Patriots turn up positive on Saturday and Sunday, the NFL may have no choice but to postpone the game again. Given how unhappy the Patriots were with the decision to fly to Kansas City and play two weeks ago, and how the NFL has since changed its rules in response to that situation, there is no way the NFL would force the Patriots to play this Sunday if it had another potential mini-outbreak.
Nor would the Patriots stand for it.
The NFL’s immediate task is to determine if Ferentz is part of the cluster of positives from last week, or an isolated case. The league must also determine if Ferentz, who was likely going to start at center with David Andrews out with an injury, came in close contact with many of his teammates and coaches. The NFL’s new protocols state that anyone deemed a “high risk” close contact must sit out for five days, to account for an incubation period.
Fortunately, chances are decent that Ferentz didn’t have much close contact with teammates. Since the Kansas City game on Oct. 5, the Patriots have practiced just twice (Oct. 10 and 15), and met in the facility one other time. They staggered players in and out of Gillette Stadium, and limited the number of players in the weight room. They wore masks at practice and during workouts.
And fortunately, the NFL has not seen any evidence that on-field football activities have aided spread of the virus. The Vikings didn’t get sick despite playing the Titans during the beginning of their outbreak. If the Patriots don’t have a mini-outbreak, the NFL should feel relatively comfortable about them playing on Sunday.
But the test results of the next two days will determine the fate of the game. Up until 12:59 p.m. on Sunday, anything can happen.
Get used to the uncertainty.