As of right now, the New England Patriots are still playing the Denver Broncos on Sunday. They're playing even though the Patriots are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak that has already wiped out most of the team's week of practice and may still be spreading through the roster.
Given what we've learned about the coronavirus, we may not know if the Patriots are in the clear before Sunday even if all of the players continue testing negative. Stephon Gilmore didn't test positive until Tuesday after testing negative multiple times following Cam Newton's initial result, and as a result many of his teammates were likely exposed during the trip to Kansas City.
For that reason alone Sunday's game needs to be postponed, but even if you believe the game can be played safely, the situation has still put the Patriots in an untenable position. You won't hear Bill Belichick and his players making any excuses, and obviously New England isn't going to get any sympathy from around the league, but strictly from a competitive fairness standpoint this situation is unacceptable. If the NFL allows games like this to go forward, the league risks making a mockery of its entire season.
How so? Let me explain.
First of all, the discrepancy in preparation time between the Patriots and Broncos is outrageously out of whack. The Patriots, who are playing on short rest as it is with Monday's game, haven't been able to practice at all and have been limited to virtual meetings. The Broncos, meanwhile, last played more than a week ago on Thursday and have been gearing up for their trip to New England ever since.
Unlike in the spring when all NFL teams were in the same boat with virtual meetings, Denver will come into this weekend's matchup having twice as much rest and more than a week's advantage in quality preparation. That is a significant competitive advantage that shouldn't be tolerated even under these unique circumstances.
Second, this outbreak hasn't just sidelined anybody on New England's roster, it's taken out the team's two best players. That in and of itself isn't the end of the world, injuries and other unexpected circumstances happen in the NFL and teams have to be ready to adjust. What's different here is that New England hasn't gotten any opportunity to prepare its back-ups for starter duty.
Even though nearly a week has passed since Newton's positive test was announced, Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham still haven't gotten any opportunity to take first team reps with the starting offense. Prior to the Chiefs game Hoyer only received second team reps and Stidham was limited to scout team duties, and it's probably not a coincidence that both were a disaster on Monday.
The Patriots are likely better equipped to handle the loss of Gilmore for the short term given the team's secondary depth, but it doesn't seem fair to expect Hoyer or Stidham to play up to expectations without even getting a single day of hands-on practice.
Lastly, the Patriots aren't going to be the last team to find themselves in this position. The Tennessee Titans are already experiencing a much more significant outbreak that has shuttered the team facility for nearly two weeks and could force the team's second straight game to be rescheduled. More outbreaks are sure to pop up elsewhere, and these same competitive fairness questions will arise in those cases too.
And sure, it may seem like no big deal now when it's the New England Patriots against a 1-3 Denver Broncos team that's playing with its third-string quarterback. But what if something similar happens in December in a game with significant playoff implications?
The NFL should be proactive and add an extra week to the end of the regular season, that way all games that have to be postponed can be moved easily without having to chop up everyone else's schedules in the process.
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but for now the Patriots are playing Sunday and Belichick said they're making the most of the situation.
"It’s not ideal. I mean, this isn't what we would normally do, but there is an opportunity to cover things and get things taught and explain them and have players ask questions and have coaches get together and put together game plans based on the same format that we are using," Belichick said. "Again, it's not what we would choose to do because we have that option and we don’t do it this way, but this is what we can do, so we'll do the best we can with it."
That's a great attitude for Belichick to have, but the fact is he and his team shouldn't have been forced into this position in the first place. For both the health and safety of the players and for the integrity of the game, the NFL needs to postpone Sunday's game.