CLEVELAND (AP) — The playoffs are within the Browns' reach. And, once again there's an unscheduled opponent in their way.
For the second straight season, Cleveland is dealing with a major COVID-19 outbreak during their postseason push.
The team's hopes were rocked Tuesday when the Browns placed eight players, including top wide receiver Jarvis Landry, tight end Austin Hooper and starting offensive linemen Wyatt Teller and Jedrick Wills Jr. on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Those players will all likely miss Saturday's crucial game against the Las Vegas Raiders (6-7), a matchup both teams need to stay relevant in the playoff hunt.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate situation," said Browns guard Joel Bitonio. “You want to see your guys on the field. But we have been through it. We had multiple weeks last year where we couldn’t fully practice. We lost some players, including the playoff game, so we do have experience with it.”
Defensive end Takk McKinley was also placed on the list with backup guard Drew Forbes, who is on injured reserve, as well as receiver/returner JoJo Natson and tight end Ross Travis from the practice squad.
They join tight end David Njoku, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and punter Jamie Gillan, who went on the list last week, missed Sunday’s 24-22 win over Baltimore and have not been cleared to return.
The loss of Landry is especially tough for Cleveland's sputtering offense. He's played well lately, catching his first touchdown pass this season in Sunday's win as well as being quarterback Baker Mayfield's prime target.
Landry leads the Browns with 38 receptions for 397 yards, and Hooper is second with 33 catches. He also caught a TD pass against the Ravens.
The Browns (7-6) are in the thick of a tight playoff race in the AFC and can't afford any more losses.
With the short week, it's going to be difficult for any of the affected players to be available. To be eligible, any vaccinated player on the COVID-19 list must be asymptomatic and have two negative tests in a 24-hour period.
An unvaccinated player must sit out 10 days.
The Browns were one of the NFL's hardest-hit teams by COVID-19 a year ago. They played without star defensive end Myles Garrett down the stretch; didn't have Landry and three other receivers in a December game at New York and still managed to end their long postseason drought.
They were without coach Kevin Stefanski and Bitonio for their wild-card win at Pittsburgh after they tested positive.
This is nothing new to the Browns. That doesn't make it any easier.
Bitonio said players were lifting and getting rehab like a normal weekday morning when the positive reports swept through the team's facility.
“They were kind of picking guys off one at a time,” he said. “So it was a little unfortunate. We kind of realized it was going to be more than one or two guys. Everybody got sent home. So it was more of a like, ‘Man, what’s going to happen?’”
Stefanski was confident his team can handle the latest adversity.
“We’ve got pros,” he said. “Those guys understand what’s really important is this game on Saturday. It’s a good opponent. It's an AFC game and we’ve got to come ready to go.”
Stefanski would not divulge any plans to replace Teller or Wills up front. An obvious option is versatile linemen Blake Hance, who has played guard and filled in for 2020 All-Pro right Jack Conklin (out for the season) before being replaced by rookie James Hudson III last week.
The Browns began their short week by being placed in the league's enhanced COVID-19 protocols. Because of the new positive cases, they'll hold meetings virtually and personnel must be masked indoors. The team also closed its practice to reporters.
By late in the day, the Browns practiced and Bitonio said Stefanski, who as a rookie coach had to navigate his team through a similar mess a year ago, reminded them there won't be any sympathy coming.
“For him to kind of stand in front of the team and just tell 'em like ‘No one cares. We have to go out there and try to win a football game,'” Bitonio said. “You hear that and that’s the heartbeat of the team, that’s the coach and you take that as leaders and pass it along to your position room and you get to work.”
On Monday, the NFL sent a memo telling teams that front-office staff and other personnel must get a COVID-19 booster by Dec. 27. The requirement comes as the league tries to combat an uptick in positive cases around the league.
“We’ve definitely educated players and staff on the booster,” Stefanski said. "I’m not going to get into specifics with that. I can tell you I’m boosted because that doesn’t violate any laws.”
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