Joe Flacco was sat on his couch. Now the Super Bowl isn’t impossible | Cleveland Browns
When the NFL season started, Joe Flacco watched it like most of us: from the couch. Unsigned coming into the season, the 38-year-old stayed in shape and threw with his brother just in case an offer came along. But he was mostly shifting his focus toward a coaching career.
Then the Cleveland Browns called after their $230m man Deshaun Watson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. He started last week and was average, though significantly more productive than the Flacco we saw play for the New York Jets last season. In Sunday’s statement 31-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Flacco was better, certainly above average. Maybe even very good. We’re talking about Flacco here so it’s never going to be a jaw-dropping fireworks show, especially at this point in his career, but boy is he solid. He ended Sunday 26-of-45 for 311 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. He was savvy, including getting the coverage to bite on a fake to Kareem Hunt on the opening drive that left tight end David Njoku wide open for the first of his two scores. There were mistakes and a few missed opportunities but mostly Flacco played like an experienced and reliable game manager.
Now, with the Browns at 8-5 and well positioned to play in the postseason, a reliable game manager under center may be enough. After all, Cleveland’s defense is terrifying, opportunistic, and championship-caliber when healthy.
Jim Schwartz’s group again showed that they are especially potent at home. The score was deceptive, given that 14 of Jacksonville’s points came off Cleveland turnovers. The Browns swarmed Trevor Lawrence, who was somehow playing despite carrying a high ankle sprain. All told, Cleveland pressured Lawrence 26 times, sacked him four times and forced four turnovers. And this was with Myles Garrett still not playing at 100%.
As Garrett returns to full health, the defense should be bolstered by other important players. Rookie Cameron Mitchell returned from injury Sunday and broke up a Lawrence to Zay Jones pass on fourth down with 3:30 left. The Browns also hope to get corner Denzel Ward back in the next couple of weeks.
In recent years teams like the Chiefs, Bills, or Bengals had offenses that were simply too good for teams that couldn’t trade blows with them. But this season has been funky in the AFC. Miami have a legitimately electric offense but have recently been hampered by key injuries on defense and the offensive line. The Bills are hanging on by a thread, but Josh Allen can and will lose them games, and has very little support elsewhere. The Fox pregame show did a parody this week called Mahomes Alone and aside from Travis Kelce, they nailed it. In Sunday’s loss to Buffalo, the Chiefs didn’t score a single point until there was one minute left in the first half. That doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. The Ravens are always a threat but Lamar Jackson also has a propensity to make some very off target throws.
After Cleveland’s win, reporters asked Garrett for his thoughts on Flacco. Garrett, flashing his sense of humor, called him “elite.” Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski didn’t go as far, but he did name him the starter for the rest of the season.
The quarterback carousel this season has been busy. But Flacco’s opportunity to go from coach to QB1 is truly one of the season’s most endearing storylines. And he is relishing the moment.
“It’s unbelievable to be out there. It’s really a unique experience,” he told reporters. “I can’t say enough about having children who are of the age that they understand what is going on.”
Who knows how far this Browns team can go? They’re still long shots to make the championship game, but there’s precedent for winning a Super Bowl with a top tier defense and a quarterback who suddenly gets hot: the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, quarterbacked by … Joe Flacco.
MVP of the week
Jake Browning, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals. Turns out the Bengals’ playoff hopes did not end the moment Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending ligament tear last month. Browning, the undrafted 27-year-old, wreaked havoc on an AFC South team for the second straight game. After stunning the Jaguars in overtime last week, Browning led the Bengals to a much less anxiety-inducing 34-14 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, completing 18 of his 24 passes for 275 yards and two touchdown throws (he ran in another). Browning has rarely look rattled since stepping in for one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and has helped keep the 7-6 Bengals in the playoff conversation.
Video of the week
It looked like the Kansas City Chiefs were going to beat the Buffalo Bills in agonizing, fashion again when Travis Kelce, who played quarterback in high school, lateralled to Kadarius Toney who trotted home for a touchdown, which would have given his team the lead with less than a minute on the clock. It was a risky move from Kelce – maybe he had been addled by Tony Romo describing Taylor Swift as the tight end’s “wife” in the CBS broadcast – but it was all for naught anyway: Toney had lined up offside and the play was called back. Patrick Mahomes in particular was incensed by the call and said players are usually warned if they are offside – but the officials were correct by the letter of the law. “No warning is required, especially if they are lined up so far offsides where they’re actually blocking our view of the ball,” said referee Carl Cheffers after the game. Buffalo won 20-17 over their old rivals to keep themselves in the playoff hunt.
Stat of the week
Eleven. There were 11 complete drives in the first-half of the Houston Texans’ visit to the New York Jets – and all 11 ended in a punt. It looked like the same old story for the Jets: brilliant defense let down by awful offense. Then something odd happened: Zach Wilson began to ball. It was just his third 300-yard passing game in 32 starts, and it sparked a 30-6 rout of Houston. Wilson connected frequently with Garrett Wilson, throwing at different depths, and looked like a man with little to lose. “[Wilson] said, ‘What’s the worst that can happen, I get benched again?’ That’s what he said and that’s the way he played. It showed,” cornerback DJ Reed said after the game.
A pretty impressive feat for Wilson and the Jets considering the first half puntfest and the derision that has been thrown his way. It was also a peek at what could have been for the Jets this season if they’d had the offense to back up their defense.
Elsewhere around the league
— Suddenly the Dallas Cowboys are looking like a very dangerous team and have now won seven of their last eight games. Their most recent was also their most impressive as they easily beat the Philadelphia Eagles 33-13 on Sunday Night Football, leaving both teams on 10-3 at the top of the NFC East, although the Cowboys would be declared division winners if the season ended today. Dak Prescott and the defense were as impressive as usual but credit should go to their kicker Brandon Aubrey too, who has made all 30 of his field goals this season, including efforts from 50, 59 and 60 yards on Sunday. The result also gives the 10-3 San Francisco 49ers, who have beaten the Eagles and Cowboys convincingly this season, the No 1 seed in the NFC.
— The Chicago Bears embarrassingly blew a 12-point lead over the Detroit Lions with four minutes left a few weeks ago. Faced with the same scenario this week – a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter – Chicago walked away with a surprising 28-13 win. The Bears’ turnover-inducing defense kept the Lions offense scoreless in the second half. Offensively, Justin Fields was sensational on the ground, and was adept enough in the air once again that he’s going to force some interesting organizational decisions come draft time.
— Take a bow, Tylan Wallace. This is how you end a football game … even if it was aided by a missed block in the back call. The Ravens ultimately secured the 37-31 overtime win because their defense didn’t completely crumble in the fourth quarter as it has so often this season. The impressive Los Angeles Rams hung in there as Matt Stafford threw three touchdowns, Cooper Kupp came to life and Kyren Williams continued to be a spark on the ground, but it wasn’t enough. The Ravens are the first AFC team this season to win 10 games.
— Sunday’s results meant the New England Patriots have been eliminated from playoff contention at the earliest point in a season since 2000. Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England could be on thin ice with the 71-year-old 27 games behind Don Shula’s all-time coaching wins record.
— Scary moments during the Texans’ loss to the Jets. NFL passing leader CJ Stroud appeared to be in severe discomfort after he hit his head on the turf when he was taken down by Quinnen Williams. Stroud was put into the concussion protocol – a troubling sight for a player who has been outstanding in his rookie season but was pressured on 44% of his dropbacks on Sunday. “Ultimately, our job is to protect the quarterback, and we didn’t do that well enough today,” Texans guard Shaq Mason told ESPN after the game.
— There are now six 7-6 teams in the AFC – the Steelers, Colts, Texans, Broncos, Bengals and Bills – which is also the cutoff for the wildcard places. If the season ended today the Steelers and Colts would make it on the various tiebreakers. This hasn’t been a vintage year in the NFL, but the parity means we should have an exciting end to the regular season.
— 3-0 is an impressive victory in the Premier League, a little less so in the NFL. That was the score as the Minnesota Vikings scraped past the Las Vegas Raiders in the league’s lowest scoring game in 16 years. The winning field-goal didn’t come until the last two minutes in a game that encapsulated much of the uninspiring offense we’ve seen this season. The 7-6 Vikings are still in the playoff places though, and Justin Jefferson escaped serious injury after taking a heavy hit from Raiders safety Marcus Epps.