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Tara Sullivan

With COVID-19, the NFL schedule is no longer measured in weeks, but hour to hour

Stephon Gilmore should be back on the Patriots' sideline.
Stephon Gilmore should be back on the Patriots' sideline.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

For those still unsure how determined the NFL is to stay on track with its schedule, this weekend tells the story.

A positive test of a Patriot player on Friday. A Saturday morning announcement that a Broncos assistant coach tested positive and would not travel with the team. Three more New England players ruled out later Saturday afternoon, placed on COVID-IR either for testing positive or for being in close contact with someone who did.

It was a rapidly changing landscape.

It did nothing to change the Sunday NFL slate.

Patriots-Broncos, 1 p.m., Gillette Stadium.

Like it or not, it appears to be full steam ahead for the twice-postponed contest. As of this writing, kickoff in Foxboro is on despite the setbacks that started Friday, when the Patriots canceled practice and closed their facility once again due to James Ferentz’s positive COVID-19 test. The list expanded to include Denver running backs coach Curtis Modkins, as well as Patriots players Sony Michel, Shaq Mason, and Derek Rivers.

But from the NFL point of view, the game must go on.

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Here’s hoping they’re right, and making this decision guided by logic and reason rather than logistics and ratings. We all know how much money is at stake with every NFL game, and we all saw how many games can be affected by one single postponement.

But everyone knew this could happen. The league, and the players who opted to play, knew this risk going in. No one expected there to be zero positive tests this NFL season, and the league never envisioned cancelling, moving or postponing every game affected by one of those positives. As they’ve learned, largely through the Patriots' mini-outbreak and the longer unfolding drama across two-plus weeks in Tennessee, contact tracing is the key, and they have to account for incubation periods. That’s what they believe they are doing now, seemingly satisfied each additional positive test represents tendrils of the originally known case (in the Patriots' case, quarterback Cam Newton) rather than an entirely new one.

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So the game will go on. The NFL is forging ahead with fingers crossed it is both safe and smart to continue playing.

Are they making the right call? I honestly don’t know, but I know I sure hope so.

Are they wrong? Once again I don’t know, but I sure know I hope not.

This is the NFL’s new reality, where everything feels uncertain and schedules might as well be written on a whiteboard, erasers at the ready. I go back to the words of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who repeatedly insisted during one of his recent media sessions that plans this season remain “day by day,” a description he would quickly amend to an even more accurate “hour by hour.” He was talking only about his own team, but he might as well have been talking about the entire league.

Belichick made those comments after the Sunday, Oct. 11 game against Denver had already been pushed to Monday, but before it would be shelved for the remainder of the week due to two additional positive tests on the Patriots. He was prophetic, and he may well have coined the game’s new mantra.

NFL 2020: Hour by hour.

As of this hour, the Patriots and Broncos are playing, putting the NFL’s strategy to its toughest test yet.

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Beyond the most obvious concern — players' health and safety — there are issues of fairness here, too. The Broncos made certain not to play that card this week, a refreshing change from the tone deaf path coach Vic Fangio started to take in the initial uncertainty, when he welcomed these distractions for their ability to weed out “whiners” and “bitchers.” But Fangio struck exactly the right tone Friday, even before COVID-19 would force his hand in leaving an assistant coach behind.

“I know a lot of people have had their lives interrupted in a very negative way,” Fangio told reporters. "Whether it be through the illness itself, losing their job, taking a pay cut, which I know some of you had to go through that in the offseason, which I was sad to see. Nobody deserves that. Some small businesses — people who have worked their whole lives to establish a business — are really struggling right now. I know some small business owners from all over the country and they are struggling.

“Luckily here in the NFL, so far as players and coaches, we haven’t missed any paychecks. We’re just going to keep fighting through and consider ourselves lucky. Yes, we’ve been inconvenienced and there are a lot of protocols to follow. Some of them can be a little overbearing at times, but they’re necessary. I think in the big picture we’ve been lucky.”

Tennessee’s two-week saga gave us more than a glimpse into what anger could be ready to erupt though, with plenty of finger-pointing, demands for forfeits, and general annoyance at one team’s problems holding another team captive. And the scheduling dominoes that fell in the wake of the Pats' postponement were enough to make anyone’s head spin.

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It’s clear what the NFL wants most to avoid is extending the season beyond 17 weeks, even if that continues to fly in the face of logic. They may eventually have no choice in that matter, and conventional wisdom here says building in extra bye weeks from the outset would have been the smart play. For now, however, they seem content to live in that day-by-day, hour-by-hour world.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.