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COVID-19 put Browns in unfair spot that could cost them wild-card berth. Still, they knew they had to play.

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer
·3-min read

The Cleveland Browns had it all set up Sunday. All they had to do to clinch their first playoff berth since the 2002 season was beat the lowly, one-win New York Jets.

Given the Browns’ powerful run game, that seemed likely.

Yet, in what must have felt like true Browns fashion for their tortured fans, a strange confluence of events convened to step in the way of destiny. It started with horrifically timed COVID-19 problems over the weekend that resulted in four of Cleveland’s top receivers and two starting linebackers being placed on the COVID list because they either tested positive or were deemed high-risk contacts.

This left the Browns, who called up a pair of receivers from their practice squad, in the position of playing two young guys — Ja’Marcus Bradley and Derrick Willies — who hadn’t caught an NFL pass on short notice.

It was so bad that the Browns held a walkthrough the morning before the game in a parking garage next to the team’s hotel — in freezing temperatures, no less — in an attempt to get ready.

Of course, it did not work, as the Browns’ passing game struggled in a brutal 23-16 loss that essentially forces Cleveland, a 10-5 team, to win their Week 17 game against Pittsburgh to make the playoffs.

Baker Mayfield and the Browns can clinch a wild-card berth with a win Sunday against the Steelers. Pittsburgh, champions of the AFC North, is still playing for a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Baker Mayfield and the Browns can clinch a wild-card berth with a win Sunday against the Steelers. Pittsburgh, champions of the AFC North, is still playing for a No. 2 seed in the playoffs. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Given the fact other games have been postponed this season, it would be understandable if some Browns fans thought it was unfair to their team to play Sunday, given the competitive imbalance issues.

Surprisingly, Browns center JC Tretter, the NFLPA president, says he didn’t hear any of his teammates ask why they were being forced to play anyway.

“I think by now we’ve seen plenty of examples this year [of this],” Tretter told reporters via conference call Tuesday. “Starting with San Francisco earlier in the year, the Broncos scenario not too long ago and then this week, both Detroit and Cleveland — examples with multiple players/staff being out and having to miss a game because they’re close contacts.”

The Browns are well-acquainted with the primary question that matters to the league when it comes to matters of postponement: Is the outbreak contained in the building? If it isn’t, you don’t play. If it is, you do, even if you are missing multiple key players on Sunday.

Not that it isn’t difficult for a team to stomach, especially one like Cleveland, which could have used those receivers in its bid to end its nearly two decades-long streak of missing the playoffs.

“It’s tough, it’s disappointing, it’s difficult to miss players or coaches on gameday, but that’s kind of the year we’re at, so I think the players understand,” Tretter said. “It’s definitely frustrating — guys want to be out there, and that was one of the toughest things this year. Guys are competitive, guys play through injury, through illness and this is a year where that’s not possible.

“You can’t play through COVID.”

Still, the possibility of a bubble remains unlikely.

“As long as our [incident] rates remain low, our medical staff on both sides — the NFLPA and NFL — have recommended that we not move to a bubble, and I certainly agree with that,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.

The question was never whether they would start the season, it was whether they’d finish. And now that they’re a month away from doing so, it’s hard for Smith not to appreciate how close they are to the goal.

“I’m really proud of everybody involved,” Smith said.

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