Browns guard Bitiono back for playoffs after COVID-19

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FILE – Cleveland Browns offensive guard Joel Bitonio (75) blocks in the third quarter an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland, in this Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, file photo. Browns Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio will be activated from the COVID-19 list Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, after missing last week’s playoff win over Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/David Richard, File)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Joel Bitonio’s long playoff wait with the Browns is over.

The Pro Bowl left guard was activated from the COVID-19 list Friday after missing last week’s wild-card win over Pittsburgh.

Cleveland’s longest-tenured player, Bitonio had to isolate at home and missed his first career postseason game — and the Browns’ first since the 2002 season. It was a devastating development for Bitiono, who had endured so much losing with the Browns before this turnaround season.

But he’ll get his long-awaited chance to play in the postseason this week. The Browns, who stunned the Steelers in the wild-card round, face the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in the AFC divisional round.

“Elated for Joel,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said on Zoom call with local writers. “He’s been here his entire career. He has been a leader, consummate teammate, everything that you could really want out of a player.

“We were all heartbroken when he wasn’t getting the opportunity to play in his first playoff game, so for us to be able to activate him today and for him to be able to take his place in the starting lineup this weekend against the Chiefs (is great).”

Bitonio was one of several Browns players and coaches to be sidelined over the past three weeks with the coronavirus.

Bitonio’s return is a huge boost for Cleveland’s solid offensive line, which has had to adjust numerous times over the past few weeks because of injuries and COVID-19.

Last week, Michael Dunn, who barely played all season, started in Bitonio’s spot and played well before suffering a season-ending calf injury. He was replaced by Blake Hance, who had just been signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad and first met Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the locker room before the game at Heinz Field.

Another worry this week for the Browns is All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin. He’s missed the past two days of practice with a hamstring injury sustained early in the win over Pittsburgh.

The Browns have slowly been getting key pieces back this week.

On Thursday, coach Kevin Stefanski returned in person to the team after also missing last week’s game with COVID-19. He prepared the team virtually for the Steelers but then watched the win from his basement at home.

Top cornerback Denzel Ward and cornerback Kevin Johnson both were activated from the COVID-19 list, and they’re needed more than ever against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his many offensive playmakers.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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