Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon celebrates after an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) passes as he is pressured by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48) in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
CLEVELAND (AP) Their margin for error is completely gone, and with one more loss, the Cleveland Browns can say goodbye to their playoff hopes as well.
They may have already.
Another demoralizing setback last week in Pittsburgh has left the Browns with no option but to win their final four games - starting with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday - to have any chance of ending a 17-year postseason drought, the NFL's current longest dry spell.
December was supposed to be the Browns' runway to the playoffs. Instead, it might be a dead end.
''We have to buckle down and win each game from here on out,'' said quarterback Baker Mayfield, who suffered a bruised right throwing hand last week. ''It is just plain and simple. We can't have any slip-ups and we have to win.''
This season that offered such promise after so many dreadful ones in Cleveland has plummeted, leaving the Browns (5-7) to ponder what might have been.
''For everybody there's been a lot of disappointment,'' said star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who hasn't had nearly the impact forecast when he arrived via trade in March. ''There's areas that we expected more of ourselves, not like we didn't know we were going to have to go out and work for it, but we just expected it, and we were willing to go get it. We just didn't get it.''
For the Bengals (1-11), there's a glimmer amid gloom.
Seemingly on their way to an 0-16 season, they ended the longest losing in franchise history last week by beating the New York Jets 22-6. Cincinnati's return to the win column coincided with quarterback Andy Dalton's return to the starting lineup.
The veteran was benched three games by first-year coach Zac Taylor, but Dalton put his hurt feelings aside and showed he's still got some magic inside his orange-and-black striped helmet.
Dalton's hoping to conjure some more over the final four weeks.
''You have to have confidence in yourself,'' he said. ''Confidence is contagious. It's one of those things where, if you practice well, if you go into the week, guys are in the right spots, you're talking about everything, you're giving everyone else confidence that you're going to get a win on Sunday.
''That's the way I'm going to go about practicing for these last four games and these last four weeks and do whatever we can to make sure guys are feeling good for the games on Sundays.''
Mayfield's expected to play despite the hand injury, which he sustained when he smashed it on the facemask of a Steelers player last week. The second-year QB didn't throw until Thursday, and said he'd like to play without wearing a glove as he did in the second half on Sunday.
Mayfield's had an uneven second season - he led the league in interceptions through seven weeks - but it hasn't changed the Browns feeling that he'll develop into an elite player.
''He is a tremendous football player - competitor, smart, tough, has a rare competitive quality and a rare want to be great,'' said offensive coordinator Todd Monken. ''... in my mind, we have the right guy going forward.''
Wide receiver John Ross returns this week after missing eight games with a shoulder injury, giving the Bengals a much-needed playmaker.
Cincinnati has lacked a deep threat most of the season with A.J. Green sidelined by an ankle surgery and Ross can fill the void. He had touchdown catches of 33, 55 and 66 yards in the first two games, the start of what he'd hoped was a breakout season.
Ross got to work with Dalton on the scout team for two weeks while he was getting back into shape. Games will be a different, but welcomed experience.
''It's hard to simulate a game during practice because there's only so many things you can do,'' Ross said. ''It's not full-speed tackling and things like that. So I think that's something I'm going to have to adjust to real quick.''
For just the second time, the ''Battle of Ohio'' will feature two rookie coaches with Taylor matched up against Browns coach Freddie Kitchens.
The only other time it happened was in 1984, when Cleveland's Marty Schottenheimer was opposite Cincinnati's Sam Wyche, who five years later provided one of the most memorable moments in the rivalry's history when he scolded Bengals fans for throwing objects on the field by reminding them, ''You don't live in Cleveland.
Cincinnati's defense is coming off its best three-game stretch of the season, allowing no more than 17 points in any game.
The biggest improvement has been on the line, which was shoved around earlier this season. End Carlos Dunlap tied his career high with three sacks of Sam Darnold in last week's breakthrough win. The Bengals are on their fourth defensive coordinator in four years, which contributed to some of the issues earlier this season.
''We're settling into each other I think,'' coordinator Lou Anarumo said. ''I've had no issues and no complaints with the guys all year. They are executing a whole lot better of late.''
A loss would relegate the Bengals to last place alone in the AFC North for the second year in a row. They haven't finished last in consecutive seasons since 2001-02. They've lost 13 of 14 overall and 18 of 20, including nine straight division games since a 34-23 win over Baltimore on Sept 13, 2018.
They were swept by the Browns last season, and a loss would give them three straight against Cleveland for the first time since 2001-02.
Updating a previous story from Monday, the Los Angeles Chargers haven't officially moved on from quarterback Philip Rivers, as FOX Sports' Jay Glazer alluded to. All options remain available with the veteran gunslinger, including the franchise tag. However, the fact that Rivers moved his family 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles to Florida could factor into the decision on both sides. The writing seems to be on the wall for the Bolts to cut ties with Rivers when he becomes a free agent this March. The 38-year-old had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2019 in his 16th and likely final season with the Chargers. Rivers can still put up numbers as he gets closer to retirement, but fantasy owners will likely be drafting him as a backup for the 2020 season, no matter where he winds up.
Kansas City Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said the team could wait until next year to sign quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a long-term contract extension. "I don't want to say necessarily it has to be this offseason, but I will say that it's a priority to get him done," Hunt said. A first-round pick in 2017, Mahomes is eligible for a contract extension now that he's finished his third year in the NFL, but it sounds like the Chiefs aren't exactly in a hurry to get something done. The 24-year-old didn't post the gaudy numbers he had in 2018 -- 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns -- but he was still more than adequate with 4,031 yards, 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 14 games. Mahomes is an elite signal-caller with exceptional athleticism with both his arm and legs. He's here to stay as a high-end QB1 and will take on the 49ers in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
Free-agent RB Alex Collins (Ravens) and QB Chris Streveler (CFL) worked out for the Miami Dolphins recently.
San Francisco 49ers DE Dee Ford (knee, hamstring) said he's not 100 percent and will play through pain of knee tendonitis and a hamstring injury in the Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy, who hasn't had a touch since Week 15 and who was inactive for the AFC Championship against the Titans, said he's not ready to retire after this season. "Nah, I'm not ready to retire, yet," McCoy said. "I still can play. So, I'm not going to retire yet, but that day is coming. That day is definitely coming." The 31-year-old has taken a back seat to running backs Damien Williams and rookie Darwin Thompson down the stretch, and he's unlikely to have much of a role, if any, in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. Shady has become more of a mentor in the running back room than an on-field performer for fantasy owners.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman (shoulder) said his injured shoulder is feeling good but wants to see how his range of motion is and how he will be able to manage the pain in his shoulder.
Fantasy Spin: Fantasy players will need to monitor Coleman's practice participation this week to see if he will be in any danger of missing the Super Bowl. He will be part of a committee if he plays and can be a flex option.
Los Angeles Chargers impending free-agent QB Philip Rivers' status with the Chargers is uncertain at this time, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The team may consider placing the franchise tag on him or let him leave in free agency.
Fantasy Spin: Fantasy players will need to monitor the situation to see where Rivers will be playing in 2020. He likely will find a starting job this offseason but may only be a No. 2 quarterback in fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle (shoulder) said he has been playing the last two seasons with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and does not plan to have surgery on the shoulder.
Fantasy Spin: Kittle seems to be playing fine despite the injury and continues to be an important part of the running and passing game. He continues to be one of the top tight ends in the NFL and is a must-start fantasy option.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (shoulder) said that he's been playing through a torn labrum in his right shoulder since the start of the 2018 season. "So I dislocated my shoulder last year," Kittle said Sunday on the Pardon My Take podcast, "and my labrum is completely torn. So I don't get surgery on it -- [The protective sleeve] basically helps me, so it doesn't hurt all the time." He didn't miss any games in 2018 and set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377. Kittle said there's "no chance" he has surgery in the future. The 26-year-old has been quiet in the postseason with four catches for 35 yards in two games, but the Niners haven't really needed him with their ground game humming. That could change in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs on Feb. 2.
Free-agent WR Tommylee Lewis (Lions) signed a Reserve/Future contract with the New Orleans Saints Monday, Jan. 27. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.
Chicago Bears WR Taylor Gabriel could be released this offseason since the team could save $4.5 million in salary cap space.
Fantasy Spin: Gabriel struggled with concussions this season but can be a role in an offense because of his playmaking abilities. He probably will be avoided in most fantasy leagues no matter where he plays in 2020.
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt, who will be a free agent in March, emotionally admitted that he would fail a drug test to a police officer during a traffic stop recently. This was caught on video of the police officer's dash cam during the traffic stop. Hunt also admitted that the small amounts of marijuana found in the car were his, but the officer let Hunt off with just the speeding ticket. It remains to be seen if the NFL will consider a suspension for the 24-year-old from this incident. Hunt was released by the Chiefs during the 2018 season due to a domestic-violence incident, and he served a suspension before making his Browns debut in 2019. If he signs with another team this offseason and is given bell-cow duties in the backfield, Hunt could have RB1 upside.
The Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on from Philip Rivers," according to FOX Sports' Jay Glazer. Rivers is set to become a free agent in March, and the writing was on the wall when he recently moved his entire family from San Diego to Florida. Rivers will end a 16-year run with the Chargers, but it remains to be seen where he'll land on the free-agent market this offseason. The Buccaneers are a popular expected destination, but that'll only be if they move on from Jameis Winston. Rivers completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,615 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2019 for a QB rating of 88.5. He might have a few more seasons left in him, but at 38 years old his arm strength is clearly deteriorating, and he'll probably be more of a QB2 in 2020, depending on where he winds up.
The Buffalo Bills were cleared of violating policy over the reporting of DE Jerry Hughes' (wrist) wrist injury in 2019. Hughes posted to social media that he was undergoing surgery after playing the season with torn ligaments, but he was not listed on the injury report.
Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox was credited with a 61-yard interception return for touchdown at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Indianapolis Colts TE Jack Doyle posted three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown on four targets for the AFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Pittsburgh Steelers DE T.J. Watt posted an 82-yard fumble return for touchdown in the fourth quarter for the AFC at the Pro Bowl in Orlando on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews ended up with a game-high nine receptions for an AFC-best 73 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR DJ Chark Jr. registered two grabs for 67 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown in the third quarter, for the AFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.