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Browns get back 3 players off COVID list to face Steelers

Cleveland Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer stands on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Cleveland. Priefer has known for months that he would replace Kevin Stefanski as Browns coach in the event of a positive COVID-19 test. He never imagined it happening in the playoffs. (AP Photo/David Richard)

CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns finally caught a break when safety Ronnie Harrison, tight end Harrison Bryant and linebacker Malcolm Smith were activated from the COVID-19 list and can play in Sunday night’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh.

The hard-hitting Harrison’s return helps a depleted Cleveland secondary missing cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, who remain on the COVID-19 list and will not play.

Ward is the Browns’ best defensive back and his absence hurts as he would have been assigned to cover Juju Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh’s top deep threats.

Cornerback Terrance Mitchell’s status is also unclear. He’s been out — an issue not tied to an injury — and is listed as questionable. If he can’t play, Tavierre Thomas would likely take on a larger role.

The sixth-seeded Browns (11-5) will make their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season short-handed.

First-year coach Kevin Stefanski and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio both tested positive this week and cannot take part in the game because league rules require anyone testing positive to isolate for 10 days.

Harrison was just placed on the COVID list Thursday. However, it turns out his test was a false positive and he was cleared to play after subsequent negative tests.

Also, the NFL determined safety Jovante Moffatt was not a close contact and he remains on the active roster.

Cleveland will be missing wide receiver and special teams dynamo KhaDarel Hodge and several assistant coaches because of COVID-19 protocols for its third matchup against the Steelers this season. The teams split the first two games.

The Browns listed All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett (shoulder) and All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin (illness) as questionable on Friday. Garrett is expected to play, but Conklin’s status is not as clear — he may be isolating because of COVID-like symptoms.

Starting linebacker and defensive signal caller B.J. Goodson came back earlier this week after missing two games with the virus.

The Browns didn’t have their first practice this week until Friday as the team’s training facility was closed for three days for contact tracing after another wave of positive tests. They received clearance to hold a walk-through Saturday before flying to Pittsburgh.

When Cleveland plays its first playoff game since Jan. 5, 2003, Stefanski will be watching from his basement at home.