Browns look to overcome COVID-19 woes in rare playoff game vs. rival Steelers on Yahoo Sports app

Jason Owens
·3-min read

The Cleveland Browns have finally done it.

After a 17-season playoff drought that was the longest in NFL history, the Browns have broken through, riding an 11-win season to a wild card berth and a Sunday playoff matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers that can be live-streamed on the Yahoo Sports app.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield bounced back from his sophomore slump with a 26-touchdown, eight-interception effort while draft investments in players like running back Nick Chubb, defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward have paid off.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) passes as he is pressured by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48) in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Will Baker Mayfield have enough talent around him on Sunday to upset the Steelers? (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

COVID-19 hits Browns at worst time

Then came Tuesday’s news. Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski announced that he tested positive for COVID-19. The Coach of the Year candidate will not be on the sideline for Sunday’s game.

Stefanski’s case is part of a larger outbreak that has resulted in multiple positive tests among coaches and players, and left others on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list.

Ward is on the list, with his status for Sunday’s game uncertain. As is fellow cornerback Kevin Johnson. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge also landed on the list. To make matters worse, defensive end Oliver Vernon landed on injured reserve Monday with an Achilles injury. He was second on the team behind Garrett with nine sacks this season.

Will Browns get players back from COVID list?

The Browns may get some players back in time for Sunday night’s game, which was still on schedule as of Wednesday after no new positive tests. But they’ll be shorthanded and without their head coach after a week of poor preparation with their facilities shut down. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the Browns at the worst time.

The coaching and roster attrition will make a tough matchup that much harder for a team that was already winning in the margins. The Browns posted an 11-5 record in spite of a minus-11 point differential, the worst among playoff teams. They don’t boast a top-10 offense or defense.

But they are fresh of a win over the Steelers in Week 17, albeit a victory that saw the Steelers rest multiple starters including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Defensive Player of the Year favorite T.J. Watt. When the teams met in Week 6, Pittsburgh rolled, 38-7.

Can Steelers bounce back from late-season slump?

The Steelers limped into the playoffs with a 1-4 finish after starting the season as the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team at 11-0. That run ensured an AFC North crown, but three straight losses to Washington, the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals raised alarms about the team’s playoff mettle.

The Steelers still boast an elite defense that will be the best unit on the field by far Sunday. And unlike Week 17, Watt will be on the field on the heels of a 15-sack campaign.

The biggest question for the Steelers is whether an aging Roethlisberger with elbow issues can spark an offense that went stagnant as the season concluded. The Steelers had a four-game stretch from Weeks 12-15 that saw them fail to eclipse 20 points. Prior to Week 12, the Steelers scored at least 24 points in every game.

They got back on track with a 28-24 win in Week 16 against a stout Indianapolis Colts defense. A first-round playoff matchup against a shorthanded Browns team may be just what the Steelers need.

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