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Baker Mayfield warns don't count out Browns: 'Once you're in the dance, anything can happen'
AP

Baker Mayfield warns don't count out Browns: 'Once you're in the dance, anything can happen'

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Short-handed Browns face tough, familiar task in Pittsburgh

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper during the second half of an NFL football against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cleveland.

The odds are stacked against the Browns as they prepare for their first playoff game in 18 years.

Let's go through a quick list ...

— The Browns have yet to practice this week because of their ongoing COVID-19 issues.

— Kevin Stefanski won't be able to coach them Sunday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers because he learned Tuesday morning he tested positive for the virus.

— They have seven players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and at least three of them — Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, starting safety Ronnie Harrison and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge — will sit out Sunday. Harrison learned Thursday he tested positive.

— Tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard will miss the game due to COVID-19, too, and three other assistant coaches could: offensive line coach Bill Callahan, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters.

— Quarterback Baker Mayfield said Thursday afternoon he hadn't thrown a football since Sunday, when the Browns (11-5) defeated the Steelers (12-4) to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002.

— The AFC North champion Steelers fell, 24-22, to the Browns this past weekend, but they rested some of their best players and will get them back this weekend: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and center Maurkice Pouncey.

— The Browns have lost their past 17 games in Pittsburgh, and if you don't think that's relevant, at least consider their most recent game at Heinz Field — a 38-7 loss on Oct. 18.

Mayfield's attitude about all of it?

Don't count the Browns out.

“All we wanted was a chance, and we got it,” Mayfield said on Zoom. “It wasn't ideal of us having to win the Week 17 game to get in, but we're in. Once you're in the dance, anything can happen. However or whatever it takes to get a W on Sunday night, that's what our team is going to be ready to do.

“We can’t win the Super Bowl Sunday night. It's just the next step of potentially getting to that ultimate goal that everybody sets before the season starts.”

Whether Mayfield is correct about this remains to be seen, but he said it wouldn't have an impact on the game if the Browns weren't able to practice this week.

The NFL didn't allow the Browns to practice Wednesday or Thursday partly because it found evidence the virus has spread within the team as opposed to last week's round of positive cases that were the results of community spread, Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, said Thursday on NFL Network

“We now know that in Cleveland we've got a bit of a mixed picture, meaning that some of the cases did come in from the community, but there was some spread from one individual to another in a couple of those cases,” Sills said. “What's important here, though, is that from Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, we've sort of put up a wall if you think of it that way, meaning players have not been in at all. Neither have coaches and staff.

“So since we've had no exposure in those three days, we do feel good about where we're going to be by the end of the week because whatever cases that we've seen yesterday and today, remember those are from exposures that typically happened between four and six days ago.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the status of the Browns-Steelers game hasn't changed. Asked about it being played as scheduled, Sills said, “Right now, I feel like we're in a good spot.”

Mayfield and his teammates have been participating in virtual meetings all week from home. He has been doing “a lot of band and body weight” exercises, plus walking through his footwork.

“It is what it is,” Mayfield said. “There are no excuses. … Luckily, we've game planned against these guys, and everybody is sitting here for the second week in a row of preparation for the Pittsburgh defense.

“[This past Sunday] for us was a playoff game. You have to empty the clip. It's win or go home. You have to be ready for anything. Obviously, for the third time playing these guys, we're going to be ready for any wrinkles and just be ready to adjust and adapt. The most important thing is taking care of the ball, communicating on the sideline and adjusting and seeing what those little wrinkles are with them having a lot of guys back and having new personnel.”

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry said Browns players must prepare themselves physically and mentally on their own.

“Because this game is happening,” Landry said. “Obviously, despite what we’re going through as a team, I don’t think the league looks at it as a disadvantage.”

With Stefanski out Sunday, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call the offense's plays. Mayfield doesn't expect a huge difference on game day because Stefanski and Van Pelt are deep into discussions about how they want to attack the Steelers, and Mayfield has repeatedly noted how much he's on the same page with both of them.

“The open communication is pretty essential to what has been our success so far,” Mayfield said.

Stefanski and Van Pelt helped Mayfield bounce back from his 2019 regression. He finished the 2020 regular season 305 of 486 passing (62.8%, ranked 30th in the NFL) for 3,563 yards (ranked 18th) and 26 touchdowns with eight interceptions and a rating of 95.9 (ranked 15th).

“He's playing at a high level. He has been for the second half of the season,” Van Pelt said. “[Him throwing just one interception in the past nine games] has been great, and that's what we're looking for. To me, the light is on, and it came on somewhere over course of during the bye week maybe.

“He has really answered the bell well. He's playing as well as anybody. Hopefully that keeps moving forward. I'm really proud of him because he is very coachable. He takes coaching right to the core. He tries to do everything how you want it done. He's great that way.”

Van Pelt said Mayfield is “fired up” about his first NFL playoff appearance. Mayfield said the team's rash of recent COVID-19 cases hasn't spoiled his enthusiasm, though he lamented the bummer of Bitonio being out.

“Whoever we have out there, we're counting on them, and we believe in those people who are out there,” Mayfield said. “We're still having to adjust and adapt, but just like last week, it's hitting the curve ball and adjusting each day.

“Even more so than ever, it's going to be a very, very tight-knit group that we have to believe in each other. … It's all we have. We have to [advance] to the next week and hopefully get those guys back.”

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