By TOM WITHERS
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns will try to make the playoffs without four wide receivers, including Jarvis Landry, along with their starting middle linebacker and his likely replacement, because of a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent contact tracing.
Cleveland’s game against the New York Jets will be played as scheduled, an NFL spokesman said.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield may not recognize every one in the huddle.
The stunning news for the Browns (10-4) came as they were preparing to fly to the New York area — the flight was delayed more than four hours — and potentially lock up their first postseason berth since 2002, the league’s longest drought.
Starting linebacker B.J. Goodson was the first to be placed on the COVID-19 list after he tested positive. Then, after the team completed contact tracing, Landry and fellow receivers Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge were also placed on the list, knocking them out of the game.
Rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips, who may have started for Goodson, is also out.
The losses leave Mayfield without most of his top targets. Landry leads the team with 67 catches for 789 yards in the absence of Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 25.
Higgins has 35 catches and has been a go-to for Mayfield on third downs.
For Landry, this will be the first game he has missed in seven seasons. The five-time Pro Bowler has played in 110 straight games and didn’t miss any time this season despite breaking a rib on Oct. 11 against Indianapolis.
“ANNOYED,” he posted on Twitter.
Higgins, too, expressed his disappointment, writing: “I don’t even have covid!!!”
Per league rules, Goodson could also miss the Jan. 3 matchup against Pittsburgh. The league says any player testing positive has to stay out at least 10 days before being eligible to return. Of course, that also depends on the player’s health.
The other players will be allowed back as long as they continue to test negative.
The Browns elevated wideouts Ja’Marcus Bradley and Derrick Willies from the practice squad along with linebacker Montrel Meander.
While the passing game could suffer, the Browns have one of the league’s best running attacks and coach Kevin Stefanski will likely lean on Nick Chubb (931 yards) and Kareem Hunt (793) against the Jets (1-13), who stunned the Los Angeles Rams last week.
Cleveland did get some good news as starting rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills was activated Saturday from the COVID-19 list after being placed there Thursday due to close contact with a person outside the team. Wills never tested positive.
After learning of Goodson’s result, the Browns delayed their flight for contact tracing. Players were told to stay home until the tracing was finished.
Goodson has done a nice job solidifying Cleveland’s linebacking corps after the team chose not to re-sign veterans Joe Schobert or Christian Kirksey. Goodson has started all 14 games and been credited with 91 tackles (59 solo), made two interceptions and provided leadership.
“He’s definitely the emotional leader of the defense,” Stefanski said after a win this month over Tennessee. “You hear him before you see him. He rallies the guys at practice and during the games. He’s making big plays in these ballgames to help us win.”
With Goodson and Phillips out, linebacker Mack Wilson will likely get more snaps after being benched last week.
Wills is an important part of an offensive line that’s taken some hits lately.
Starting right guard Wyatt Teller will miss his second game in a row with a sprained ankle and the Browns lost versatile lineman Chris Hubbard for the season with a knee injury suffered in a win over the Giants last week. Rookie Nick Harris will make his first career start in Teller’s spot.
The Browns also elevated center Javon Patterson from the practice squad as a COVID-19 replacement.
Like numerous NFL teams, the Browns have been dealing with positive cases for most of the season. Defensive star Myles Garrett missed two games after contracting the virus. He said last week he was still struggling with lingering effects from the illness and continued to undergo breathing treatments.