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NFL: Bengals, Browns bring out the backups in Week 18

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Baker Mayfield ended his 2021 season this week, but the Cleveland Browns have one more game when the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals visit for the regular-season finale.

Mayfield landed on injured reserve Wednesday and is headed for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Backup Case Keenum will start for the floundering Browns (7-9), who have lost three in a row and eight of 12 since a 3-1 season start.

Cleveland was eliminated from playoff contention in the AFC last Sunday. Mayfield struggled most of the season with a host of injuries.

“Nobody wanted this — the way this is going, it’s gone, Baker for sure,” said Keenum, who started and piloted the Browns to a 17-14 win over visiting Denver in Week 7. “It’s a tough football league, and that’s kind of the way it is sometimes.”

Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski has faith in Keenum to get the job done, and he said anyone who is healthy will play. That includes defensive end Myles Garrett, who has 15 sacks on the season but none in the last three games, and running back Nick Chubb (1,201 rushing yards), who was a minimal part of the game plan in Cleveland’s 26-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night.

“(Keenum) is a pro,” Stefanski said. “Just in my conversations already with him this week, he’s ready for the opportunity. He very badly wants to get a win like the rest of our guys do.”

The Bengals (10-6) have won three straight to claim the North title. Cincinnati plans to play without red-hot quarterback Joe Burrow. After posting 971 passing yards and nine touchdowns in his last two games, Burrow will sit out the finale to rest a sore knee and prep for wildcard weekend.

“It’s sore, but it’s not bad,” Burrow said Wednesday. “I could play if I needed to.”

The Bengals have a long-shot chance to finish as the top seed in the AFC, but coach Zac Taylor is likely to hold out several starters. He confirmed it was his decision to rest Burrow. Brandon Allen, who has attempted just two passes this season, will start for Cincinnati.

Taylor might not have many of his regulars available due to COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Bengals placed safety Vonn Bell, linebacker Akeem-Davis Gaither, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and offensive linemen Trey Hopkins and Quinton Spain on the reserve/COVID-19 list. On Wednesday, Cincinnati added Pro-Bowl running back Joe Mixon and defensive tackle B.J. Hill to the same list.

Taylor wouldn’t commit Wednesday to a number of his starters who could miss for rest or otherwise. Ja’Marr Chase, already with a modern NFL rookie record 1,429 receiving yards this season, is a prime example of a standout player who may or may not see much action in the finale.

“I can’t make a prediction on starters right now. A lot can happen before Sunday,” Taylor said Wednesday.

Cleveland will be gunning for a fourth win in a row over the Bengals and Stefanski has yet to lose to this division rival in his two seasons. The Browns hammered the Bengals, 41-16, in the first matchup this season in early November.

But Cleveland is 2-5 since, hasn’t scored more than 24 points since the offensive explosion, and only twice in the last seven games has managed to break 20.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have relied on Burrow, Mixon and a dynamic Chase-led wide receiver group to pile up 75 points in the last two games. Taylor said his team will play to win but won’t put some players in jeopardy before the playoffs.

“We want to finish the regular season on a good note,” he said.

The Browns had 15 players on Wednesday’s injury report, with starters in cornerback Denzel Ward (groin), tight end David Njoku (shoulder), and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee) all listed as non-participants.

The Bengals had eight players miss practice due to rest or injury on Wednesday, including key players in Burrow (rest/knee), defensive tackles DJ Reader (rest) and Larry Ogunjobi (illness), defensive end Sam Hubbard (thigh) and tight end C.J. Uzomah (knee/hip).

–Field Level Media

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