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Cleveland Browns still have hope despite Week 16 meltdown at New York Jets

The Cleveland Browns' day could be summed up by the play they ran with 95 seconds remaining against the New York Jets. Baker Mayfield, with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth and the Browns facing a second-and-10 from the Jets' 25-yard line, aimed a pass at rookie practice-squad call-up Ja'Marcus Bradley down the sideline just yards from the goal line. Bradley, between two defenders, got his fingertips on the ball, but Mayfield's pass was high and fell incomplete.

That drive, and the Browns' comeback attempt, ended when Mayfield fumbled a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-inches two plays later, with the Jets holding on to win 23-16. That the Browns were hoping for a playoff-berth-clinching catch from a player who entered the game having not caught a pass for Cleveland all season, though, was 2020 in a nutshell: Compliance with the NFL's COVID-19 protocols is a competitive element this season and the failure to comply has caused good teams to lose games, as coaches predicted would happen going all the way back to training camp and as the Browns did to the Jets on Sunday.

Bradley, who had five receptions for 60 yards, was playing because the Browns' top four receivers, including starters Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins, were deemed on Saturday to be high-risk close contacts of a person who tested positive for COVID-19 -- linebacker B.J. Goodson. That meant the Browns spent Saturday afternoon scrambling to elevate practice-squad fill-ins, and early Sunday morning in a freezing cold parking lot near the Browns' New Jersey hotel, executing a walkthrough to try to bring the players up to speed.

A devastated-looking Mayfield took one question in his postgame media availability about losing his receivers, gave a long answer in which he blamed himself for losing two fumbles and then left.

"It's pretty much 2020 all in 24 hours," Mayfield said. "Something happens. You have to adapt and change. It's not an excuse. I'm just going to go ahead and answer all the questions right now. There's no excuse. It sucks that we didn't have our guys, but we believe in the guys we have in this locker room, no matter who it is.

"... There's no excuse. Plain and simple. I failed this team. ... Obviously, I just need to hold on to the damn ball."

With only one week left in the regular season and playoff races coming down to the wire, nobody in the NFL needs another cautionary tale. But the Browns are the starkest example yet of how quickly fortunes can change because of COVID-19, an experience shared earlier this season by, among others, the Ravens, who suffered the biggest outbreak of the year; the 49ers, who had to play the Packers while shorthanded; the Broncos, who played a game without a quarterback; and, on Saturday, the Lions, who got demolished by the Buccaneers in part because their interim head coach and most of the defensive staff were all unavailable, forcing the team's head coach assistant/research and analysis to make the defensive play calls against Tom Brady, with predictable results.

The NFL made it clear to owners back in October that games would be postponed only for medical reasons, not competitive ones. That put the onus on teams to be scrupulously careful. Nobody doubted that players and coaches would continue to test positive for COVID-19 -- they are, after all, not living in a bubble. The challenge was to wear masks, social distance and avoid prolonged contact to prevent a rash of high-risk close contacts that could wipe out a position group. The Browns slipped up -- apparently by only the slightest bit -- and it still could cost them the playoffs. The protocols will not change once the playoffs start, either. Presumably, playoff teams would be highly motivated and disciplined to comply, but if the regular season has proven nothing else, it is that the NFL will keep the games on schedule no matter who is available, as long as there is no outbreak.

Luckily for the Browns, the rest of their season has been so impressive -- they had won five of their last six before Sunday -- that all was not lost. With negative tests, their receivers should be available next week, when they face the Steelers with another chance to clinch a wild-card spot. With a win, the Browns will make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Because the Steelers beat the Colts to win the AFC North on Sunday and the Chiefs locked up the AFC's No. 1 seed, it is possible Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin will rest some of his starters, making Cleveland's road a little easier. It is likely that, should the Browns win that game, the misadventures of players congregating in the recovery tub with at least one case of improper mask usage will go down as a head-shaking footnote to an otherwise thrilling turnaround season for the team.

Still, this was a peculiarly 2020 Browns loss, raising questions about why a playoff-contending team would still not be following protocols to the letter, and -- then -- why it abandoned the run in the first half of the game (the Browns had 4 yards rushing) even though it was the third-ranked rushing attack in the league.

"I got outcoached," Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We got outplayed."

And, Stefanski said, "I wish we scored points, whether running or throwing, doesn't matter."

Stefanski gamely said the loss had nothing to do with missing much of the receiving corps, that the Browns "had all the guys we needed."

He did -- in running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who rushed just nine times in the first half, while Mayfield attempted 24 passes, while the Browns fell behind, 13-3.

The renaissance of Mayfield and the Browns in Stefanski's first season in Cleveland remains one of the best stories in the NFL's most surreal campaign. That their long-awaited return to the playoffs got stalled by the pandemic that has changed practically everything about the league is fitting for a franchise that has struggled for so long and will be a reminder to everyone else to be careful. As a difficult year comes to a merciful end, though, the Browns still have hope, and that's a reminder everyone else could use about the future, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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