Patriots get crucial extra day with Broncos game postponed until Monday

FOXBORO MA. SEPTEMBER 10: Bill Belichick walks on the field during New England Patriots practice at Gillette Stadium on September 10, 2020 in Foxboro, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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After cracking the NFL’s toughest code earlier this week, limiting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to 19 offensive points, Bill Belichick now faces a bigger challenge, perhaps the greatest of his career.

How to defend against COVID-19.

In response to Stephon Gilmore’s positive test, Belichick canceled practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to eliminate any potential outbreak within the team’s facility. His decision came days after the NFL chose to incur that same risk, telling the Patriots to play Monday in Kansas City without knowing for certain whether an infected Cam Newton had spread the virus to teammates or coaches after testing positive last week.

This week, the league’s messaging has remained consistent — with one crucial tweak.

The Pats-Broncos game has been postponed to Monday at 5 p.m., affording the team a vital extra day before players and coaches must engage in close contact during the game. By Monday morning, five full days will have passed since Gilmore’s positive test, meaning every COVID-19 test taken by team personnel then should accurately reflect whether or not they contracted the virus from Gilmore.

Five days constitutes the median incubation period — the time from initial exposure to the onset of symptoms — for COVID-19. Until an infected person carries enough virus to exhibit symptoms, they are unlikely to test positive, even though they may already be contagious.

Recent rounds of negative tests in New England have provided temporary relief, just as they did last Sunday and Monday before the 26-10 loss in Kansas City. Nevertheless the next day, Gilmore, one of almost two dozen Patriots who were in close contact with Newton last week, tested positive. Concern and confusion over the team’s next game quickly ensued — again.

Now, the five-day timer restarts, albeit this time with benefits.

By pushing kickoff back a day, chances have increased that Newton could play against Denver, even if he was symptomatic. League protocols mandate players that test positive and display symptoms must wait 10 days before activation or produce two consecutive negative PCR coronavirus tests separated by 24 hours and be approved by a team physician before they return. Newton and/or Gilmore could play under those same testing conditions, if they are asymptomatic.

While Gilmore announced Wednesday he is asymptomatic, infected people without symptoms carry similar amounts of the virus in their bodies as those who do feel sick, according to recent studies. COVID-19 also manifests differently in different individuals, making it more difficult to corral with generic guidelines based on symptom recognition. This explains why the Patriots aren’t planning to practice until at least Saturday, according to a source, when they would still take necessary precautions.

“The whole COVID situation is just a big gamble in terms of — it’s just like roulette. You don’t really know what your symptoms are going to be,” Patriots linebacker Chase Winovich said Thursday during a radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I understand the whole premise behind, ‘those guys are going to be fine.’ But A, your families are at risk. And B, not everybody handles the virus the same way.

“How your body reacts is really kind of a crapshoot. I’m just trying to stay safe, play football, and obviously, it’s a complicated situation.”

When it ignored the incubation timeline after Newton’s test last week, the NFL placed Gilmore, the Pats and their families in danger. Due to the extended incubation delay, it was impossible to know who could have been shedding the virus until he or she tested positive. According to Harvard Medical School, a person infected with COVID-19 may actually be most contagious in the 48 hours before symptoms or a positive test arises.

In Kansas City, Gilmore shared a hotel, two bus rides, a cramped locker room, a sideline, the playing field at Arrowhead Stadium and two plane trips with teammates and coaches. Following the typical incubation timeline, it’s easy to trace Gilmore’s probable time of exposure back from his positive test Tuesday. When would that be?

Within 24 hours of Newton’s positive test last Friday, the same night the two reportedly had dinner.

Should a Patriots player or coach test positive this weekend, their dots will be even easier to connect. All roads will lead back to Gilmore, even if an infection point would be impossible to prove.

The delay between testing and the communication of a positive result — which can take upwards of 24 hours — already poses an inherent problem within the NFL’s protocols that is unsolvable. Because within that window, players carrying the virus lead normal lives outside the facility — like choosing to grab dinner on a Friday night with a teammate — instead of isolating themselves.

Had the incubation period been ignored again, the league and the Patriots would have incurred significant added risk. The entire football operations staff could have been subject to an outbreak, perhaps akin to the Titans’ situation, which has their season on the brink.

From the moment Tennessee first produced a positive test, the Pats have repeated the same talking points born from the stoic philosophy that largely governs their organization: they’ll focus on what they can control.

“There’s a lot of decisions and things out of our control,” Belichick said Thursday when asked if he wished the NFL hadn’t forced Monday’s game to be played. “What I’m trying to do is to focus on the things that we have control over and do the best job and make the best decisions we can in those situations.”

By deferring to the NFL earlier this week, the Patriots paid an unnecessary price, causing Belichick to start calling his own, informed shots. But finally, with Thursday’s news, the league has made a prudent decision around the virus — even if it’s one week late, and the nonguaranteed benefits can’t be reaped for another few days.