The NFL headed into week five of the 2020 season under a cloud of uncertainty as Covid-19 further disrupted a schedule already impacted by the first major outbreak of the disease.
After a relatively smooth start to the season, where league safety protocols appeared to be working, the coronavirus has struck back with a vengeance in the past fortnight with two teams suffering multiple infections.
The most serious outbreak has swept through the Tennessee Titans (3-0), who confirmed a 23rd positive case on Thursday, forcing Sunday's fixture with the Buffalo Bills (4-0) to be shunted to Tuesday.
The New England Patriots, meanwhile, were nervously waiting to see if they have additional cases after a positive test for quarterback Cam Newton last week was followed by positives for cornerback Stephon Gilmore and tackle Bill Murray.
The Patriots were somewhat controversially cleared to take to the field to face the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend despite Newton's positive case.
Gilmore, who played in the game which was moved from last Sunday to Monday, was seen embracing Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes after the contest.
The outbreaks have left the Titans and the Patriots forced to work remotely, with both team facilities shut down.
The Patriots' Sunday fixture against the Denver Broncos has been put back by 24 hours to Monday.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Thursday the health and safety of his players remained paramount.
"There's nothing more important than the health of the team," Belichick said. "That's priority No. 1.
- 'A lot of questions' -
"When we feel like it's safe for everyone to come back, then we'll do that. I'm sure you have a lot of questions, and I have a lot of questions.
"This is really more of a medical situation than a football situation, so we'll work through the decisions and input from the people in the medical field.
"We have a lot of questions on our end, but for right now, yesterday and today, we're closed and we're going to work virtually to prepare for Denver and just take it day by day.
"I feel like we did everything that we could control. I think we did everything properly with the extra planes, the extra buses, the same-day travel, etcetera, etcetera. There's multiple things we could list there."
The Titans meanwhile could face sanctions from the NFL if it is determined the team knowingly broke league safety protocols.
According to reports, a group of Titans players held an unauthorised practice at a Nashville high school last week, a day after being warned not to gather for in-person activities at the team's training facility or any other location.
That could potentially leave the Titans open to severe punishment.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell warned in a memo sent to all 32 franchises this week that the league was ready to force teams to forfeit games or be docked draft picks if they were found to have breached safety protocols which resulted in fixtures being postponed.
"Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game," Goodell wrote. "Simply put, compliance is mandatory."
The unease stalking the league has overshadowed a slate of games where five of the six remaining unbeaten teams are due to be in action.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday while Mahomes and the Chiefs, who improved to 4-0 with Monday's win over New England, are due to host the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Seattle Seahawks (4-0), meanwhile, host the 1-3 Minnesota Vikings on Sunday hoping to make it five wins out of five.
© 2020 AFP