New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore is expected to play Sunday against the Broncos after being away from the team following a positive coronavirus test. Charles Krupa/Associated Press


Between the goal lines, the Patriots found their purpose Thursday.

They found their quarterback.

They found their best defender.

At the end of two of the most disjointed weeks in franchise history, they found, above all else, a fleeting sense of normalcy.

Thursday afternoon’s practice was all the Patriots craved after two game postponements and a stretch of 12 days that allowed them to hold only a single walkthrough. They’ve met virtually now for two weeks straight, having isolated themselves after three positive COVID-19 tests followed their last game at Kansas City on Oct. 5. Players have only recently been permitted to re-enter the facility for staggered workouts.

At practice, the team became a team again.

“Just to finally be in person and get back into the normal routine a little bit, it felt great to be back out there today,” said wide receiver N’Keal Harry.

As expected, Cam Newton was the center of everything. He practiced without limitations.

“He’s a very vocal guy, he likes to have fun out there. Kind of brings back that mood, that fun kind of mood out there,” Harry said. “So it’s been good.”

“He brings a ton of energy,” said wideout Gunner Olszewski, “and when (media) leave, I’d say he even turns it up a notch for all of us. A lot of energy. He’s fun to play with.”

On the quieter end of the personality spectrum, Stephon Gilmore made one of the NFL’s best secondaries whole again with his return. Last seen, Gilmore and Co. were holding the explosive Chiefs to 19 offensive points, their second-lowest scoring total ever with Patrick Mahomes under center. Had he been ruled out Sunday, the Patriots would have likely reshuffled their coverage roles and responsibilities.

Instead, Gilmore should now be able to shadow Broncos star rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy and all but eliminate him, allowing the defense to game plan as it prefers.

“Just to get out there today and practice, we missed having those guys out there. They’re a big part of what we do,” said cornerback Jonathan Jones. “Just having them out there today definitely felt different.”

Provided the Patriots continue to produce negative tests, different should eventually cede to normal. The team intends to practice again Friday and hold a walkthrough Saturday, before welcoming the Broncos for a 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday.

As the NFL juggles its schedule around new positive tests, preparation has kept the Patriots centered. And calm. Players shared that Bill Belichick and staff alerted them to a possible midseason delay during the summer, when the team first began following the league’s extensive COVID-19 protocols.

“We knew something like this might happen before the season, and it’s just adapting to it,” said outside linebacker John Simon. “We have a good group of veterans who are able to lead some of the younger guys along and make sure they are still locked in. … We just have to keep doing it and keep staying resilient, but I think we’re handling the adversity pretty well so far.”

So far, oddsmakers agree.

The Patriots are 9.5-point favorites on Sunday, a reflection of the reinforcements they received Thursday and their longstanding history of overcoming midweek obstacles. In most instances, Bill Belichick’s message is to focus strictly on football and forget the noise. This year, for obvious, pandemic-related reasons, has been different.

But it’s worked all the same.

“We continue to press forward with as much safety and vigilance as possible in our whole approach to football and all the things that surround it; our families and the safety of everyone involved here – players, staff, organization, so forth,” Belichick said. “We learn things every day and we continue to try to take steps to put everybody’s safety at the very top of the list, and at the same time, try to accommodate the competitive aspects that we need to perform on the field.

“It’s definitely a balance there, but we’ve got to put first things first.”

Because of their vigilance, football came first for two short hours Thursday. The Patriots were the Patriots again, players and coaches working together in a blur of blocks, tackles, passes and runs. For once, testing meant competing against one another, not a virus. And the kickoff clock ticked uninterrupted; a moment of calm amid a sea of uncertainty that’s swept through Foxborough and the nation at large.

“It felt like we were itching to get back on the field,” Olszewski said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.