The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos met at last.
And Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, a kickoff that had been moved four times and into the sixth week of the NFL season became an 18-12 loss for New England.
Here’s a glance through what went into it.
Newton steps back in as New England’s No. 2 seat changes hands
After spending 11 days on the Covid-19 reserve list, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton returned to practice on Thursday and to the starting role by Sunday. His lone missed game had seen Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham share snaps under center in delayed defeat against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Newton’s first pass of the game would intercepted by diving defensive lineman DeShawn Williams on a swing to the flat. Pressure up the middle from fellow Bronco Shelby Harris played a part. Newton stood 9-for-11 passing by the time New England got on the board with a field goal as intermission neared. But Patriots wide receivers Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry drew a total of one target by halftime. By the final zeros, they’d given way to two completions. Newton would be picked again on a tipped pass via corner Bryce Callahan. He finished with 157 yards through the air. Though on the ground, Newton galloped for 76 yards and extended across the plane for his fifth touchdown of the season.
Hoyer would not be in uniform for New England, leaving Stidham as Newton’s primary backup for the first time this season. The No. 2 job belongs to the 2019 fourth-round pick by way of Baylor and Auburn.
Lock leaves a strong-armed impression
Newton wouldn’t be the only starting quarterback returning to the field Sunday. Denver’s Drew Lock hadn’t taken a snap since injuring his throwing shoulder on Sept. 20. But last year’s second-rounder out of Missouri graduated from limited to full participation leading up to the visit to Foxborough.
And while listed as questionable on the final injury report, Lock’s first game in Foxborough came to fruition. A 41-yard connection to wide receiver Tim Patrick against cornerback Jason McCourty got it underway. Deep tries to the end zone were taken with the subsequent snaps, and broken up by busy nickelback Jonathan Jones before Denver sent out the field-goal unit for the initial points.
Lock tried Jones’ coverage again on the next series and was met by another breakup as Denver settled for three. Lock kept shooting. It netted a 27-yard completion to rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and another field goal to make it 9-0. The Broncos held a 12-3 lead at the half would extend to 15-3 and then 18-3 after a fumble by Patriots tight end Ryan Izzo. Without the pass-catching services of Courtland Sutton, K.J. Hamler and Noah Fant, Lock went 10-of-24 for 189 yards. Late in the fourth, J.C. Jackson and the aforementioned Jones corralled interceptions on back-to-back drives to keep New England within shouting distance.
After 100-yard outing, game script moves away from Harris
After beginning his redshirt-freshman NFL campaign on injured reserve, Damien Harris made his 2020 debut at Arrowhead Stadium count to the tune of 100 rushing yards with a long of 41. The Alabama product looked on track to continue the momentum Sunday.
Harris started. He had five carries in the first quarter. But he wound up with six for 19 yards while catching one pass for 14 yards against a difficult run defense and an increasingly difficult script.
Undrafted Patriots running back J.J. Taylor went to the inactives list as a healthy scratch 90 minutes prior to kickoff. Veterans James White and Rex Burkhead stepped forward in the rotation around Harris, last year’s No. 87 overall pick.
Bentley eclipses career high in tackles
Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley registered a team-high 12 combined tackles on Sunday, surpassing his previous career high of eight set last December against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The first-year Patriots captain and former three-year Purdue captain stopped two behind the line of scrimmage. He stormed up the middle and turned blitz pickup into a takedown of Denver’s Lock, as well.
It marked the first sack of Bentley’s NFL tenure.
A makeshift starting five for New England
Starting right guard Shaq Mason was among three Patriots placed on the Covid-19 reserve list on the eve of Sunday’s game. And in his absence, along with that of center James Ferentz, who had filled in with captain David Andrews on IR, another reshuffle lied ahead.
The New England offensive line broke the huddle with Justin Herron, Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, Michael Onwenu and Jermaine Eluemunor. In that order from left to right. A pair of rookies from the sixth round among them. And a pair of established starters on one side moving one spot over toward the other.
The combination would be tested only 12 minutes in, however, when Eluemunor had his ankle caught underneath Newton on a sack. He did not return. The Patriots subbed in reserve Hjalte Froholdt at right guard as Onwenu moved to right tackle. And by the third quarter, Wynn was back on the blindside with Onwenu at left guard and Herron at right tackle. A strip-sack by Broncos edge-rusher Bradley Chubb followed.
Lindsay finds room while the Patriots’ interior depth thins
Adam Butler exited in the second quarter with an elbow injury that left him questionable. The all-around Patriots defensive tackle had been on the injury report as questionable due to a shoulder injury. But the depth chart entered understaffed, with Byron Cowart on the Covid-19 reserve list, Beau Allen on injured reserve and recent signing Carl Davis inactive after his 53-man roster exemption was lifted on Saturday.
Patriots All-Decade selection Lawrence Guy was accompanied on the interior by Deatrich Wise and Nick Thurman for stretches before Butler made his way back onto the field in the third frame.
Phillip Lindsay made his way back, too. Having missed all but the season opener because of a foot injury, the two-time 1,000-yard Broncos rusher accounted for 101 on 23 attempts.