The simplest way for the Cleveland Browns to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 is to beat the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and Pittsburgh might not have much motivation to play all its key guys. The Browns likely will get back a laundry list of players from COVID protocols/injury, led by receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins and starting offensive linemen Jedrick Wills and Wyatt Teller. The Browns are 7.5-point favorites on the William Hill Sportsbook NFL odds.
The Browns could have clinched a playoff spot last Sunday by beating the one-win Jets but were upset 23-16 as the team's top four healthy receivers, Landry (67 catches, 789 yards, 3 TDs), Higgins (35/544/4), Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge, all were out due to COVID-19 protocols. So was linebacker Jacob Phillips. Barring an unforeseen positive test, all five should be able to return to the team facility Thursday. They were all considered simply close contacts of linebacker BJ Goodson and all five have continued to test negative as of this writing. Goodson tested positive and is in quarantine; he leads the team with 91 tackles.
The left tackle Wills, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 draft, had started every game this season but also landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list ahead of the Jets game. He wasn't in close contact with those other guys but reportedly somebody outside the organization. If Wills continues to test negative, he'll be able to return.
Teller, the starting right guard, has missed the past two with an ankle injury but the Browns are confident on his return. Baker Mayfield was sacked four times and the Browns ran for just 45 yards vs. the Jets without Wills and Teller.
Cleveland currently holds the final Wild-Card spot in the AFC and is in with a victory as the Browns have the head-to-head tiebreaker against the No. 8 Colts. Cleveland also would clinch a playoff spot regardless if the Colts lose at home to the Jaguars, but that's almost surely not happening with Indy as a 14-point favorite. The Browns also get in if the Titans lose Sunday and the Ravens, Colts and Dolphins all win.
Clearly, oddsmakers think the Steelers (12-3) will be resting starters as they can't climb higher than the No. 2 seed in the AFC or lower than No. 3, so why bother going all-out? Pittsburgh, which currently sits third, will be hosting a game on Wild-Card Weekend. Coach Mike Tomlin has announced that Ben Roethlisberger won't play Sunday and Mason Rudolph will start under center.
It's the first time since 1989 that the Browns have been at least 7-point favorites in this series and that spread will only continue to rise now that Tomlin has ruled out Roethlisberger with others to follow. Big Ben is an absurd 24-2-1 straight up in his career vs. Cleveland.
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