COVID-19's threat to Patriots-Chiefs reveals perils of NFL's 2020 season without a bubble

Welcome to 2020, NFL.

The league that, for the most part, has skated through a pandemic with limited impact is now dealing with the kind of uncertainty, unpredictability and sheer disappointment that has faced just about everyone else.

One game this weekend has been postponed to later in the season — Pittsburgh at Tennessee. Another is now in flux, New England at Kansas City. The league has already pushed that game back to Monday or Tuesday, but even if it is played, it will be without Patriots star Cam Newton, who was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list on Saturday. In a statement, the team said a Patriots player tested positive for the virus.

None of this will — nor should it — derail the season or weaken the NFL’s resolve to keep playing. This is what everyone knew was inevitably going to come, the reality that the virus will do what the virus wants to do.

Screwing up a highly anticipated Cam Newton-Patrick Mahomes late Sunday, nationally televised clash doesn’t even rank in terms of real-world impact. That doesn’t mean it’s any fun.

Cam Newton reacts during a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Gillette Stadium.
Cam Newton will miss the Patriots' matchup against the Chiefs. It's unclear when that game will be played as it was postponed Sunday. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

The biggest surprise is that it even took this long — four weeks into the season. That’s a testament to NFL protocols and the efforts of players and coaches to adhere to strict safety standards. Bubbles are made to pop though, especially loose ones like this.

This is going to be the new normal, nothing guaranteed until the ball is kicked. The Patriots were about to fly to Kansas City on Saturday when word broke. Contact tracing and additional test results over the next 24 hours could cause the game to be further postponed or even canceled. Who knows?

Meanwhile, the situation with Tennessee remains concerning. The NFL already dealt with its game against the Steelers, shuffling the schedule so they can play Oct. 25 (a Pittsburgh-Baltimore game was moved from that date to Nov. 1 to make it work).

Saturday revealed additional positive tests, however, bringing the Titans’ total to 16. It’s still early, but Tennessee’s Oct. 11 game against Buffalo is now, at the very least, a possible casualty as well.

The NFL schedule is an enormous Jenga tower, and there are only so many blocks that can be pulled out before the 16-games-for-all model collapses. The league isn’t there yet and hopefully never approaches it, but October just began.

There is always the possibility of adding a week to the season in early January and thus pushing the playoffs back and eliminating the off week between the championship games and the Super Bowl, but no one wants that either.

Essentially, who knows? Which is how much of the world has operated this year. The NFL has previously escaped much of that. It staged free agency and its draft on schedule and to much acclaim. Some organized team activities and preseason games were canceled, but the quality of play once the regular season started on schedule remained high.

Then, the first three weeks went off flawlessly.

This is what sent the NBA and NHL into hardshell bubbles. It’s what concerned the baseball season (and caused the league to plan a postseason bubble). Football’s challenge, among other things, is it can’t stage doubleheaders to make up for lost dates.

What comes next is anyone’s guess. The league will continue to try to power through, of course. Its ability to add practice squad players to fill gaps means that, in most cases, games should be able to go off as long as positive tests are limited.

That said, everyone wanted to see Newton v. Mahomes, not Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer vs. Mahomes. That said, for the Patriots, they’d probably rather lose Cam in a game they were less likely to win.

All of this will be particularly terrifying, and impactful, if it were to happen during the January playoffs.

That’s how the game is played in 2020. And that’s if the game is played at all.

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