Cleveland Browns squander chance to clinch playoff berth with loss to New York Jets

A nightmare Saturday for the Cleveland Browns carried over to Sunday. And now, Cleveland's once promising hopes of finally snapping the NFL's longest playoff drought are suddenly on the brink.

The Browns couldn't overcome the absence of their entire receiving corps, two starting offensive linemen and two starting linebackers, falling 23-16 to the lowly New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

Cleveland's last-gasp drive in the fourth quarter came up short, as Baker Mayfield fumbled on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak at the Jets' 16-yard line. Browns running back Kareem Hunt recovered the fumble, but was not allowed to advance the ball, giving possession to New York.

It was Mayfield's third fumble of the day.

Cleveland could have clinched its first playoff berth since 2002 with a win after the Pittsburgh Steelers came back from a 17-point deficit to knock off the Indianapolis Colts.

Instead, the Browns will likely have to defeat the Steelers in the season finale to make the playoffs. They could lose if the Colts lose to the 1-14 Jacksonville Jaguars, but they're almost in a must-win situation next week.

After a player tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, Cleveland had to delay its flight to New Jersey for more than four hours to conduct contact tracing.

The Browns initially placed starting linebacker B.J. Goodson on the reserve/COVID-19 list. After finishing contact tracing, the team added wide receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge on the virus list after identifying them as high-risk close contacts, leaving Cleveland without an active receiver who had caught a pass from Mayfield this season.

Because of the flight delay, the Browns were unable to hold their regular Saturday walkthrough. So Sunday morning, they held it in a parking garage next to their hotel, largely to get receivers Ja'Marcus Bradley and Derrick Willies, both called up off the practice squad, and Marvin Hall, claimed off waivers earlier this month, up to speed with the starting offense.

Then, the Browns lost starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to an illness before the game.

With so many key players out, Cleveland's offense scuffled through much of the game. With New York stacking the box and daring the Browns to throw to their unproven receivers, Cleveland running backs Nick Chubb and Hunt combined to rush for just 39 yards on 15 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns averaged a 0.3 yards per rush before contact, their fewest in a game since 2017.

Still, Cleveland had two chances late to sneak out a victory.

With a little more than 3 minutes remaining, Mayfield was sacked and fumbled the ball away to the Jets at the Cleveland 17. The Browns' defense, however, forced New York to settle for a field goal, keeping it a one possession game.

On their final drive, the Browns moved down the field, aided by New York booting the ball out of bounds for a penalty on the kickoff.

But Cleveland could not score again. And though alive, it's not in the playoffs just yet.

Describe the game in two words: Total debacle. All the Browns had to do to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002 was defeat the 1-13 Jets, and even with so many starters out, this constitutes as a massive missed opportunity.

Silver lining: With the Colts losing, the Browns are currently in the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. They also have the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Colts, who are currently on the outside looking in.

QB Breakdown: Mayfield needed a huge day, underscored by his 53 pass attempts. The three fumbles and four sacks he took overshadowed anything else.