CLEVELAND (AP) — The blind-side hit that finally took out Baker Mayfield came off the field.
Cleveland's quarterback had toughed it out for months, playing — and struggling — with a fractured left shoulder, bruised knee and heel issue. He was back to being himself, mostly healed.
“This is the best I’ve felt since Week 2,” Mayfield said following last week's win over Baltimore.
Now, he's sacked. And he's hardly alone.
Mayfield is one of several Cleveland starters — along with coach Kevin Stefanski — who could miss Monday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders, a matchup moved back two days by the NFL after a COVID-19 outbreak threatened to reduce the Browns to playing mostly backups in a vital game.
Mayfield tested positive during a week in which the virus ran rampant across the NFL, leading to a modification in the league's health protocols. With extra time, the changes could help the Browns get back some regulars for a game they need to win to stay in the playoff race.
As of Friday, the Browns (7-6) had 24 players on the COVID-19 reserve list and before the postponement were prepared to play without Mayfield, top wide receiver Jarvis Landry, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney two starting offensive linemen and two starting safeties.
Plus Stefanski and two assistants.
On Thursday, Case Keenum, who was slated to replace Mayfield, tested positive as another wave of positive tests crashed down on Cleveland’s roster. The timing would be bad any time, but especially with four games left and little margin for error if the Browns want to make the playoffs.
The Browns added eight more players, including Clowney who has been on a tear lately, to the COVID-19 list on Friday.
To keep a season that begin with big expectations from fizzling, Cleveland will have to count on backups and probably its running game to get past the Raiders.
“Guys have to step up," said Stefanski, who will turn over game-day duties to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer if he doesn't pass protocols in time. “That's kind of the name of the game here.”
It's not a new situation for the Browns. Last season, Stefanski missed Cleveland's first playoff game since 2003 after testing positive and watched the Browns beat Pittsburgh in the wild-card round from a couch in his basement.
The Raiders have had plenty of their own adversity this season.
They're coming off a 48-9 drubbing at Kansas City, their fifth loss in six games. A 5-2 start to the season seems like an eternity ago.
Still, they're mathematically alive in a playoff chase that figures to shift a few more times in the weeks ahead.
“We’re still right there and we have four AFC teams that we play, two in the division,” Vegas quarterback Derek Carr said. “It’s not going to be easy, but you’re telling me that we have a chance.
“The way that we’ve come to work is we do have a chance and that’s a fact. But we have to win football games, that’s all that matters.”
The COVID-19 situation has knocked out 40% of Cleveland's offensive line, one of the league's best units.
With right guard Wyatt Teller and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. on the COVID list and possibly out, the Browns will turn to reserves Michael Dunn and Blake Hance.
It's nothing new for Hance and Dunn, who both played in last season's playoff win at Pittsburgh.
“With the two guys who will be plugged into those spots, they have played playoff football for us and started in games that we have won in the playoffs,” coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “I'm confident in their ability. Very smart guys. Tough guys.”
While the Raiders have been struggling, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow has been a consistent bright spot.
Renfrow has 30 catches in the past three games, the most receptions in a three-game span in Raiders history. Renfrow (86 receptions) is just the fourth Raiders receiver with at least 85 catches in a season.
"It’s easy to identify him on the field because the ball seems to find him all the time and usually the ball finds good players,” interim coach Rich Bisaccia said. “He's a really special player.”
If Mayfield and Keenum aren't cleared, third-stringer Nick Mullens will start against the Raiders.
The 26-year-old does have experience after making eight starts last season for San Francisco. He went 5-11 for the 49ers from 2018-2020. The Browns signed him to the practice squad before the season.
“He works hard in the film room and on the side at practice — stays out after practice and gets opportunities with the other guys,” Van Pelt said before learning of Keenum's positive test. “If something were to happen and we needed Nick to show up, I have confidence in him, as well.
"I know he has put the work in, and he has had success in the league, as well.”
GIVE IT AWAY
The Raiders' propensity for turnovers has played a key role in their recent slide.
After turning the ball over just five times — second fewest in the NFL — over the first seven games, the Raiders have 12 giveaways in six games since the bye. They turned it over five times last week in the loss at Kansas City, including a fumble by Josh Jacobs on the opening play from scrimmage that was returned for a touchdown.
Las Vegas lost three more fumbles and had an interception against the Chiefs.
“The No. 1 thing was the turnovers,” Carr said. “We had good plays. We had some explosive plays. We had some really good looks at a lot of things. A couple other chances at some explosives early in the game. But their rush did a good job on a couple of those.”
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press