AFC South Reporter
The Browns’ defense has never been in question. It’s an elite unit, historically strong according to numerous metrics. But many NFL observers haven’t taken Cleveland seriously as an AFC playoff contender because of questions about the team’s quarterback play.
It appears that the Browns might have enough talent to make noise, despite attrition at the position.
“Obviously, it feels good when it looks like people have confidence in you,” quarterback Joe Flacco said.
The 38-year-old Flacco, in just his second start for Cleveland (8-5), helped guide the Browns to a 31-27 home victory Sunday over the Jaguars (8-5), snapping a two-game losing streak. He had two turnovers — one pick, one lost fumble — but completed 57.8% of his passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns.
Each of the touchdowns went for at least 30 yards: Two to tight end David Njoku in the first half, the third to wide receiver David Bell in the fourth quarter, when he had a 41-yard catch-and-run score on a fourth-and-3. Flacco became the Browns’ first 300-yard passer since Week 11 of last season.
Coach Kevin Stefanski announced that Flacco would be Cleveland’s starting quarterback for the rest of the season.
“I’ve been in a bunch of locker rooms, but whenever you walk into a locker room, you still want to gain the respect of everybody,” Flacco said. “You don’t know if you quite have that until you can go out there and get a win and continue to do it day in and day out. You try to carry yourself the right way and you try to do all the right things, but that doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of going out to the field on Sunday. So it feels awesome to go out there and get the win.”
A former longtime starter and Super Bowl MVP with the Ravens, Flacco spent the offseason team-less. He reached a point to where he thought he wouldn’t get a call from a team. It looked like his NFL days could be over. But he signed with Cleveland’s practice squad less than three weeks ago, when Deshaun Watson was ruled out for the year. And in a short span, he’s given the Browns more than enough at quarterback to believe they can remain competitive down the stretch. He has a 55% completion rate for 565 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions across two games.
Flacco is the fourth quarterback to start for Cleveland this season. Before him, it was Watson (six starts), P.J. Walker (two) and fifth-round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (three), who returned Sunday in a limited role after missing the previous game with a concussion.
A team with four starting quarterbacks in a season is typically looking to the draft at this point of the year. But not Cleveland, with how good their defense has been. And now Flacco has shown that he still has some juice left in the tank, raising the ceiling of this Browns season.
“I think it’s a little scary to not sign somewhere in the offseason, not be in training camp somewhere,” Flacco said. “But I was trying to keep a positive light on it and spin it in a positive direction and see all the benefits of possibly getting a call from a team at some point that needs somebody to help them win.
“I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t like I turned anybody down in the offseason,” he continued. “I probably would have had a tough time doing it, even though I was at the point mentally where I don’t know if I wanted to go do it. Obviously, life puts you in certain situations and you don’t know why. You just have to make the most of it.”
His play helped propel the Browns past a Jaguars squad that’s one of the best teams in the AFC. It kept Cleveland in the driver’s seat of the conference’s top wild-card spot.
Flacco had plenty of help Sunday from the defense. The unit played to the level we’ve seen so often this season. Cleveland had four takeaways, including three interceptions. It also had 12 quarterback hits and 10 pass breakups. Jacksonville was held to 293 yards of offense, its fourth-worst mark of the season. That included just 58 rushing yards, the team’s lowest total of the campaign.
But Flacco’s play is the most encouraging part for the Browns from a big-picture perspective.
“No one is going to be perfect. He’s picking up things as he goes, but the man was sharp,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He made the plays he needed to make. He picked up those old legs and got a first down. The guy is doing it all. He’s giving it all for this team. Got nothing but respect for him.
“He came in with just a positive attitude, an aura around him,” Garrett added. “Just wanted to listen and learn and be around the guys. … Just intrigued to be around us as a team. At this point, he still feels like an outsider looking in. But he’s one of us and as long as he continues doing what he’s doing, he’s going to stay one of us.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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