The Cleveland Browns looked maxed out earlier this season after a slew of injuries forced them to call Joe Flacco out of free agency to become their quarterback. Good quarterback play had already eluded the Browns, with their combination of Deshaun Watson, P.J. Walker and Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggling to play any semblance of consistent football.
Flacco joined the team in time to make a Week 13 start against the Los Angeles Rams where he completed 52.3% of his passes en route to a 17-point loss. Since then? Flacco has magically become one of the best versions of himself, throwing three more touchdowns Thursday in a win over the New York Jets to clinch a playoff spot, and giving the Browns’ rugged defense the relief it needed on the other side of the ball — which makes Cleveland bonafide Super Bowl contenders.
Flacco’s run with the Browns hasn’t been perfect (he’s thrown an interception in every game so far), but the Browns don’t need perfect. They need just competence as long as they still field arguably the best defense in football. Flacco has given them competence with peaks of elite play thanks to his world-class arm strength, which is still among the best in the league as he approaches his 39th birthday.
That physical skill, paired with his willingness to push the ball downfield, has given the Browns a level of variance that they didn’t have. Sometimes the best strategy is just throwing down the field and seeing what happens; wide receiver Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku have made that a viable strategy in recent weeks.
If Flacco’s five-game stint with the Browns was extrapolated for an entire 16-game season, he would be on pace for 5,494 yards, 44 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. The interception count is certainly higher than what most quarterbacks are producing in this era of football, but the yards and touchdowns show that Flacco is providing a big boost in terms of playmaking that the Browns have lacked. It’s sort of the Jameis Winston conundrum that the Buccaneers faced when he was their starting quarterback for a couple years. If Cleveland can survive some of the bone-headed mistakes that come with this style of play, the team has the capability of going on a serious postseason run.
Thursday night’s bout against the Jets showed what was possible for the Browns once the playoffs hit. Even though the Jets have had a rough end to their season, they still have one of the best defenses in the league. The Browns dropped 34 points in the first half largely due to the way that Flacco threw down the field and allowed playmakers to get in position to make plays.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski has gotten back to his roots as a heavy under-center, play-action team that fits Flacco’s style of play and makes the Browns’ offense difficult to defend. Once Cooper returns to the lineup for the final week of the regular season and the playoff run, the Browns will have an offense that might be able to win them a few games in the postseason.
This version of the Browns is absolutely a Super Bowl contender. The quarterback is not infallible, but this is the best version of the team that has appeared all season. The defense doesn’t have to carry as much of a load, but it’s talented enough to do it when it needs to. The Browns will absolutely play better offenses in the playoffs than the one led by Trevor Siemian, but they finally have the big-play potential within their own offense to scare good teams.
All eyes in Cleveland are on the Ravens and Dolphins for the rest of the season, because they still need some help to grab the No. 1 seed. But it’s a miracle that they’re even in this position. Any team that can grab home-field advantage for the entire playoffs is automatically a Super Bowl contender, and somehow the Browns have climbed back into those ranks due to the helpful play of a 38-year-old free agent.
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