Nineteen years ago, in what was Bill Belichick’s second season in New England and Tom Brady’s first year as an N.F.L. starter, the Patriots had a 2-3 record at the second week of October.
It was the last time, until Sunday, that the Patriots had a losing record after five games in a season. In the 19 seasons since then, the team’s record in its first five games is 69-26. But in this most atypical N.F.L. season, even the reliably consistent Patriots are now in unfamiliar territory.
In a game that was twice postponed because of coronavirus cases among players, the visiting Denver Broncos stunned the sloppy, unimaginative — and likely underprepared — Patriots on Sunday with six field goals in an 18-12 upset. The Patriots (2-3), who had not played for 13 days, had three turnovers. The team’s offensive line, disrupted by injury and positive coronavirus tests, yielded four sacks.
Belichick had tried every unconventional tactic to maintain some unity during the Patriots’ long layoff — one full team meeting was held outside in the bleachers — but the Patriots were able to conduct only one practice plus a perfunctory walk-through in the run-up to Sunday’s game. Perhaps not surprisingly, they took the field flat-footed as Broncos quarterback Drew Lock completed a 41-yard pass on the game’s second play.
That jolt to the Patriots’ system was quickly followed by a 45-yard field goal by kicker Brandon McManus as the Broncos (2-3) took a lead they never relinquished. Because Lock threw two careless interceptions on consecutive throws late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were able to make a late run that kept the score relatively close, but the New England offense remained hopelessly out of sync even during that rally.
The most effective play the Patriots had was the unplanned scrambling of quarterback Cam Newton on pass plays. Newton, playing his first game since he tested positive for the virus, had 76 rushing yards on 10 carries and scored a touchdown. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 157 yards.
It was not nearly enough as no Patriots running back had more than 19 rushing yards and no Patriots receiver accumulated more than 65 passing yards. With the Denver defensive line dominating the reshuffled New England offensive line, Newton also had two passes deflected at the line of scrimmage that became costly interceptions.
The Patriots essentially were outplayed in every substantial way.
Or as Belichick said afterward, “We didn’t do anything well enough today to win.”
Since the Patriots’ practice and administrative complex was closed to players and coaches multiple times in the last two weeks, Belichick conceded that the reduced game preparation had an impact on Sunday’s outcome.
“It was a big challenge — playing without guys, getting guys hurt, moving around, had some guys that haven’t played together much, hadn’t practiced together much,” he said. “So we need to get on the field. We need to practice. We need to develop some continuity as a team.”
Denver Coach Vic Fangio praised his team, which had not played for 17 days, for its ability to overcome the frequent distractions this month.
“You’re mad, you’re disappointed, you’re frustrated, and you wonder why,” Fangio said, describing the mood of his players and himself. “Five minutes later you take a deep breath and you move on. I’ve tried to get the guys to think that way, and I think they have.”
Trailing by 18-3 with about 10 minutes remaining in the final quarter, Newton bulled into the end zone on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. Belichick chose to go for a 2-point conversion and called for a pass with only two receivers in the formation. When both intended targets were covered, Newton dashed for the end zone but was tripped up short of the goal line.
On the next Denver possession, a miscommunication between Lock and wide receiver Tim Patrick led to an interception by cornerback J.C. Jackson. Though they took over at the Broncos’ 25-yard line, the Patriots lost 7 yards on three plays and settled for a 38-yard Nick Folk field goal to cut Denver’s lead to 18-12.
The Broncos’ primary goal on the ensuing possession should have been running out the clock, but on the first play, Lock heaved a deep pass into double coverage. It was intercepted by Jonathan Jones. New England advanced to the Denver 24-yard line in the waning moments of the game, but Newton’s last four pass attempts resulted in two incompletions, a 6-yard reception and a sack as the Broncos took over on downs.
Afterward, Belichick closed his news conference with a sentence that might only be uttered in this year’s Covid-19 chapter of N.F.L. history.
“Hopefully,” he said, “we’ll be able to practice this week.”
He added: “We certainly need it.”