Browns lose CB Ward for Steelers game after positive test

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FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020 file photo, Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward celebrates after the Browns defeated the Houston Texans 10-7 after an NFL football game in Cleveland. The Browns are trying to shake free from COVID-19 to face the Steelers. Cleveland's issues with the virus intensified Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 as top cornerback Denzel Ward and linebacker Malcolm Smith were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list and the team was forced to close its facility before canceling practice with the biggest game in decades coming fast.(AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)

CLEVELAND – The Browns ended 2020 without practicing for their first game in 2021. COVID-19 has Cleveland's playoff hopes in peril.

Issues with the virus intensified Thursday for the Browns as top cornerback Denzel Ward and linebacker Malcolm Smith tested positive and were ruled out for Sunday's game. The team also canceled practice as it prepares to face the Pittsburgh Steelers — with a playoff spot up for grabs.

The latest positive tests forced the Browns to initially close their facility to do close contact tracing. However, after consulting with the NFL, the team decided to call off practice days before it biggest game in years for “the health and well-being of our players, coaches and staff.”

Despite the new cases, Sunday's game at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium remains on schedule, according to an NFL spokesman. The league is closely monitoring the Browns’ situation and overseeing standard contact tracing.

The Browns aren't the only team wrestling the virus in the last week of the regular season:

— Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who came off the bench to rescue the Dolphins last week, will miss Sunday's regular-season finale at Buffalo as Miami tries to clinch a wild-card berth.

— Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, joining receiver Cooper Kupp ahead of the Rams’ season finale against Arizona. Cardinals safety Chris Banjo will not play Sunday after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

— The Atlanta Falcons will be without center Alex Mack. He went on the COVID-19 list after the team stopped all in-person work at its practice facility on Thursday.