JARRETT BELL

Opinion: NFL teams better buckle up. COVID outbreaks could bring mayhem to the playoffs.

Jarrett Bell
USA TODAY

We knew that with a new 17-game regular season, the NFL’s playoff jigsaw puzzle would bring some extra drama for the stretch run.

Yet adding the X-factor of COVID-19 to the mix provides intrigue the NFL could do without.

With three games slated for the weekend postponed until Monday and Tuesday – the first games in the league this season that have been rescheduled – it’s starting to feel like 2020 all over again.

Kudos to the NFL, pushed by the NFL Players Association, in coming off its previous stated plan to play through the 2021 campaign without altering the schedule’s timetable due to COVID-19 outbreaks. It was a determined approach, sending the message to the 32 teams that they had more of a responsibility to field their teams and would pay the potential competitive price for outbreaks.

Good. The NFL made it through 14 weeks with its schedule intact.

But with the Omicron variant raging across the nation and more than 100 players league-wide testing positive last week for COVID-19, reality has forced the league to adopt the type of flexible measures it exhibited last season – providing a fresh warning for what type of disruptions could go down during the NFL playoffs that begin in mid-January.

First things first. The Cleveland Browns, with a home game against the Las Vegas Raiders originally scheduled for Saturday, can climb into first place in the AFC North with a victory on Monday night.

Browns QB Baker Mayfield is hoping he can return from the COVID list for Monday's game against the Raiders.

That’s stunning when considering the woes that Cleveland (7-6) has encountered this season. Imagine if they had been forced to play on Saturday, with more than 20 players going on the COVID-19 reserve list. And imagine if the league hadn’t revised its protocols and roster-management rules that will allow for players to be activated as late as 2 p.m. ET on Monday for a game that kicks off at 5 p.m.

Previously, teams had to have players cleared 24 hours before kickoff. Now the Browns, with quarterback Baker Mayfield among 12 starters and 24 players on COVID-19 reserve last week, have a fighting chance to gut out a victory after a week that was heavy on virtual preparation. Under the new protocols, players can return with two negative tests taken simultaneously. Before, the two negative tests needed to be performed on consecutive days.

If Mayfield and backup Case Keenum (who tested positive on Thursday) can’t make it back, the Browns' offense will be triggered by fourth-year pro Nick Mullens.

“As you can imagine, things are very fluid,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters during a Zoom conference call on Saturday. “We will see how it goes in terms of guys not going on the list, but in terms of guys who are coming back, we do not know. There is uncertainty there.”

For sure. With first place on the line.

As Browns tight end David Njoku said upon coming off the COVID-19 list, “Every positive test is just an extra curveball that we have to hit.”

The Browns were one of three teams that had more than 20 players on COVID-19 reserve last week, joining the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Football Team with that distinction.

Not every team with an outbreak, though, caught a break. Fox Sports insider Jay Glazer reported on Sunday that the Chicago Bears requested the NFL postpone its Monday night game against the Vikings after 14 players went on the COVID-19 reserve list over the weekend, while four coaches also tested positive.

The league said no dice. The game at Soldier Field will be played as originally scheduled.

And with Omicron poised to bump the Delta variant “off the table” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, described, the NFL must brace for COVID-19 to wreak havoc on playoff ramifications before, during and throughout the run to Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.

At least this isn’t an entirely new crisis for teams to manage.

“You do have a lot of plans in place,” Rams coach Sean McVay told reporters over the weekend.

McVay's team (9-4) can now claim a share of first place in the NFC West with a victory against Seattle on Tuesday after Arizona’s upset loss at Detroit on Sunday. He got a dose of positive news with the return of all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. activated off the COVID-19 list. During the week, they quickly adapted to 2020 measures, including virtual meetings and a tent for outdoor meetings while practicing with a skeleton squad while so many players were missing.

“You’re kind of dusting off some of the procedures and things you had in place,” McVay said. “I certainly did not ever anticipate this coming up again, but based on being in a situation where we have such good weather, we’ll start using that tent again to meet and things like that. But I think with what we learned last year about being able to utilize technology to get things communicated to our players in an efficient manner remotely is definitely beneficial.

“I think last year definitely prepared us better.”

McVay knows it will do no good to use the outbreak as an excuse heading into another game. But he knows.

“The agility and the flexibility is at a premium right now,” McVay said.

Stefanski can relate.

“We are just kind of playing it minute by minute,” he said.

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The Browns coach, who watched his team’s huge playoff win at Pittsburgh last January from his basement after testing positive for COVID-19, saw practices this week via video feed after testing positive again.

“If guys make it back, great,” Stefanski said. “If they do not, that is fine, too. We have that mentality … where it is next man up.”

Maybe Mayfield makes it back, as he contended on Sunday that he is asymptomatic. If not, the next quarterback up could be Mullens, who isn’t totally green. Injuries allowed Mullens to log 16 starts during his three years in San Francisco. Now the opportunity to play might come with a different set of circumstances …which could forecast more of what’s ahead.

“Just take one thing at a time,” Mullens said of his approach. “Whatever happens, just roll with it and accept that we are all here to do a job.”

Unless, of course, there’s a positive test.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.