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.
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.
Baltimore Ravens defensive end Matthew Judon is a candidate to receive the team's franchise tag and could also be traded, according to league sources. The Ravens would like to bring Judon back in 2020, but they are also likely to listen to trade offers if another team shows interest. The Niners dealt a second-round pick to the Chiefs last year for defensive end Dee Ford, who then signed a five-year deal worth up to $87.5 million last March. The Chiefs also traded first- and third-round picks to the Seahawks last April for defensive end Frank Clark, who then signed a five-year, $105.5 million deal. Judon has emerged as a high-end pass rusher with at least seven sacks in each of the last three years. The 27-year-old had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2019 and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
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.
Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams ended up with a team-high six receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper finished with three grabs for 24 yards and a touchdown on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins completed 13-of-22 passes for 181 yards, two touchdowns and one interception at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26
New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas hauled in five receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown with a team-high eight targets at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell had a solo tackle, a sack and a quarterback hit in the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26, winning the Defensive Most Valuable Player award.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson completed 16-of-23 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, winning Offensive Most Valuable Player. He also ran twice for six yards in the 38-33 win.
Houston Texans impending free-agent TE Darren Fells is a player the Texans will try to re-sign this offseason, but he probably will receive interest from multiple teams in free agency.
Houston Texans impending free-agent QB AJ McCarron is a candidate to be re-signed this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop.
New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley (groin), who is six weeks removed from groin/abdominal surgery, said he is jogging "a little bit" and is on track to take part in "spring football." Mosley has also started a vegan diet after playing in just two games last season because of his injury in his first year in New York. The 27-year-old should be ready for a full training camp heading into the 2020 season, and he should give Gang Green a steadying presence in the middle of the field next season. Mosley recorded 100-plus tackles in four of his five seasons in Baltimore before signing with the Jets in free agency last offseason.
Former Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who did not play at all in 2019, plans to play in 2020 after intentionally taking the season off to rest his body and mind. Berry was cut by the Chiefs in 2018 and has only played in three games since 2016 due to injuries and a bout with cancer. The former first-round pick in 2010 has 14 career interceptions and five touchdowns and could provide a team with a veteran presence in the secondary in 2020. However, it remains to be seen if any team will take a chance on the veteran moving forward. Berry is unlikely to be an asset in IDP leagues if he gets picked up by a team.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who will become a free agent in March, said he is still waiting to decide if he will play a 20th season in the NFL. "Then, I'll kind of lay low for a little bit, get away and then assess. I kind of have a process in mind. And I'll give it a month or so," Brees said. If the 41-year-old does decide to return, it'll be for the Saints. General manager Mickey Loomis also said that the team would welcome him back if he decides to keep playing. Brees' arm strength is starting to deteriorate, but he still put up great numbers when he came back from a fractured thumb last season, and he should remain in play as a QB1 if he returns for the 2020 season.
Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller (hernia) underwent sports hernia surgery recently to fix a lingering groin injury that he suffered during the season, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly. The 25-year-old aggravated the injury in the Divisional loss to the Chiefs. Fuller missed five games with a chronic hamstring injury in 2019, and the Texans were 8-3 with him and 2-3 without him. He has 94 catches for 1,452 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 22 regular season games with quarterback Deshaun Watson, yet Fuller continues to struggle to stay on the field with regularity. Fuller is an excellent deep threat but is a frustrating player to own as a boom-or-bust WR3. He should be fully recovered in time for training camp this summer.