So many tentacles to this story, from the science of contagion to the effect on TV, to the second Presidential debate, to the effect on the schedule, to the strange story of the sudden New England quarterback, to the hastily called league meeting today, to how Tennessee’s going to handle its current nightmare. And to what must be some unease on the part of the players in this game tonight, no matter how reassuring the league’s been about the health and safety of playing through a pandemic.
The schedule. Why rush the Patriots-Chiefs game to tonight and have the league override its rule about not traveling on the day of a game? Three reasons. The league didn’t want to saddle Kansas City with a Tuesday-Sunday-Thursday (at Buffalo) stretch of three games in 10 days. (With the third game butting ratings heads with the second Trump-Biden debate, if it happens.) KC would have been open to move the game to Friday, but FOX doesn’t pay $60 million per game to play a sexy game (KC-Buffalo) on a bad night for prime time, Friday. And it fits New England better too. The Patriots wouldn’t have wanted to get home at 4 a.m. Wednesday to prepare for a Sunday game with Denver, when the Broncos would have had nine days to prep after a Thursday game the previous week.
Kansas City certainly would have been okay with moving the Thursday-nighter to the FOX Sunday doubleheader window in Week 6. Two problems: No team wants to add an extra short-week Thursday-night game, and every team has one already. And two, the FOX doubleheader game that week is Aaron Rodgers at Tom Brady. End of discussion.
I’ll tell you why the NFL hopes it doesn’t have to add a Week 18 and 19. If I had a dime for everyone who’s emailed or tweeted me with the why-not-just-push-postponed-games-to-January idea, well, I’d have about $3.10. The short answer is it might happen. The smart answer is this: There’s no good reason to decide that until you have to. And the NFL wants to avoid it if at all possible—and not just because it would push the Super Bowl back a week or two. (In February, Tampa, the Super site, is open. Wide open.)
Let’s say you have five or six games to make up at the end of the season. Say three teams have to make up two games each, and the NFL adds a Week 18 (Jan. 10) and Week 19 (Jan. 17), to ensure each team plays a 16-game regular season. That could mean the top seeds in each conference would play their final regular-season games on Jan. 3, and their divisional playoff game on Jan. 30 or 31. How fair would it be for the team that earned the bye to sit for a month before playing a playoff game? To me, it’s far better for two or three teams to play 14 or 15 games than to put your highest-achieving teams at the disadvantage of sitting for a month, then playing its most important game of the year.
But the overriding point is there might be three or four games with little meaning left to play at the end of the year. You just don’t know what you’ll face as this season runs on, so decide when you have to.
What to do about Tennessee? It’s no sure thing the Titans will be able to mobilize forces and open their practice facility and get in the requisite work to play their Week 5 home game against Buffalo on Sunday at noon CT. With fullback Khari Blasingame becoming the ninth Titans player to test positive over six days, the work by the NFL and NFLPA to investigate the Titans outbreak becomes increasingly important. How did things blow up there so badly, and how soon will COVID subside there? “It’s the Marlins all over,” said one informed league source Sunday night. League and union officials are investigating whether—as Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported Sunday—players or club employees violated rules on wearing tracking devices or reporting symptoms of COVID. No rules exist on what the discipline would be for violation leading to outbreaks. Could the Titans, if forced to miss one or two games, simply play a shorter season than other teams and have their playoff status determined by winning percentage versus full-season teams? Could they be made to forfeit a game or games if found to have been negligent? Unknown and undecided.
A bubble. It’s a good idea, of course, putting every team in a local hotel for the next three months for most or all of every week. A good idea, until you ask families about missing Thanksgiving and Christmas. It may come to this. If two or three more teams have Tennessee-like outbreaks, the league and union may push for it. Now? I think there’d be some but not overwhelming support. I also think some players—no idea how many—would opt out.
The science. One thing nags at me—and, I can tell you, at some of those involved in the game tonight: How can players be sure that the incubation period for the disease is over, especially after seeing players from the Titans test positive for COVID for six straight days? They can’t. After hearing that Newton tested positive on Friday, Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, said Sunday that the average person exposed to Newton on Friday would test positive the following Tuesday or Wednesday.
“A test within one or two days of exposure is meaningless,” said Dr. Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital.
NFL medical director Dr. Allen Sills told me if a player tests positive on a Friday, the exposure likely came days earlier. “When are you infectious to others is a question the medical community is wrestling with,” Sills said.
Let’s say Newton got exposed to COVID on Tuesday or Wednesday and didn’t test positive till Friday. Those around him—close contacts are defined by the NFL as being within six feet of Newton for at least 15 minutes in a day—may have been exposed for two or three days, not just Friday. In that case, testing done on the close contacts may have been in day four and five Sunday and today. The fact that no one out of all Patriots players and coaches tested positive in the rapid tests Saturday or Sunday sets the New England case apart from the 20 cases found, according to the Tennessean, in Nashville over the past six days.
Brian Hoyer. Hoyer, 35, has played six of his 12 NFL seasons with the Patriots in three separate stints, and recently decided to move his family lock, stock and barrel to New England. He loves it there, and he’ll make the family home in the area whenever he retires. He’s also played in Cleveland, Arizona, Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis and San Francisco. Oddity of the week: Hoyer has played more seasons and games (23) in New England than anywhere, but he’s never started a game for the Patriots . . . and he’s started at least one game in every one of his six other stops.
Imagine what Hoyer is thinking right now, cramming a starters’ game plan into his head after getting news, presumably, on Friday, that he’d be playing in this game—on the road, against the best team in football, against the defending Super Bowl champs, and against a 25-year-old phenom who’s already been the MVP and Super Bowl MVP. That’s some first starting assignment for the Patriots—oh, and with Bill Belichick examining your every throw—right there.
As for the game—what, there’s a football game tonight?—New England certainly has gone to school on KC’s narrow overtime win over the Chargers in Week 2. The Chargers limited Kansas City to nine possessions in four quarters, and won time-of-possession by 11 minutes. That’s the way you beat Mahomes—don’t give him many chances. To do that, you’ve got to run it well, and New England has, with 534 yards in three games, for a 5.1-yard average carry. Sony Michel is coming to life after a slow start, and Rex Burkhead has contributed 6.0 yards per touch. Hoyer’s smart. He’ll know to snap the ball late on the play clock, and he’ll know not to take contested chances downfield. But Kansas City embarrassed Baltimore on Monday night, and Andy Reid and Mahomes are such a perfect play-caller/play-executer duo, and the skill players are healthy. Not impossible, but this is a tough matchup for New England. For anyone right now, really.