Six thoughts, notes and observations from the path that’s led the 10-5 Cleveland Browns to a playoff-clinching situation Thursday night when they host the 6-9 New York Jets.

1. Win and in. That’s the deal Thursday night, and given the winding path the Browns have taken to get here and the injuries that continue to cause both long-term uncertainty and short-term roster shuffling, that’s a big deal. The Browns have won three straight in large part because Joe Flacco has changed everything about their offense, but the defense has continued to deliver and the team as a whole has continued to be adaptable and resilient.

The Browns can clinch just the third playoff berth of the team’s new era this week. They’re still technically alive in the AFC North despite being two games behind the Baltimore Ravens with two games to go, and there’s even one wildly unlikely scenario that could make Cleveland the AFC’s top seed. But the Browns have used four starting quarterbacks and have been on a path to 10 wins being enough to just get in the postseason — the 11th would make it official.

After they won in Baltimore on Nov. 12, I started to believe they were a real AFC contender. They won that day because Deshaun Watson completed every pass he threw in the second half while outplaying Lamar Jackson and leading multiple scoring drives in the second half. The defense scoring in that second half on a Greg Newsome II interception swung the game, and that felt like the kind of victory — especially headed to the back half of the season — that could propel the Browns to big things.

Three days later, it was revealed that Watson was out for the season and almost all felt lost. The defense still was capable of dragging the Browns to the playoffs, but what was a signature win was quickly forgotten due to the injury. Flacco wasn’t even signed to the practice squad until Nov. 19, and after yet another quarterback injury, he’s now posted three straight games of over 300 passing yards.

He’s not just making good throws. He’s throwing lasers. Some are going in small windows to the back of the end zone, and some are going up into the clouds before they land. On one Sunday, Flacco was getting dragged down and still got it to the sideline, where Amari Cooper somehow caught it and was able to get both feet inbounds despite his back being almost fully turned toward Flacco. Cooper set a Browns record with 265 receiving yards against the Texans, and there wasn’t a hint of arrogance in his voice after the game when he said he felt like he was capable of getting 300. It was just that kind of day, as the Browns — reshuffled and reinvented — completely dominated.


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2. I referenced the Baltimore game not because it led to Cleveland becoming the first team to call Flacco, but because I had a similar feeling leaving Houston. Winning in a half-empty stadium in Houston over a team quarterbacked by Case Keenum wasn’t the same as winning in Baltimore. Dominating a depleted Texans team to the point where Cleveland’s starters were briefly removed from the game early in the fourth quarter was not the same as overcoming multiple two-score deficits against Jackson and the Ravens.

But the Browns have not been as good on the road this season as they’ve been at home. It was fair to wonder if they were due for some sort of letdown after their magical rally to beat the Chicago Bears the week before, and as far as the playoffs, Sunday’s game meant as much to the Texans as it did to Cleveland. I’m not surprised the Browns won; I picked them to win as soon as we knew C.J. Stroud wouldn’t play. The dominating nature of the victory combined with the way Flacco and Cooper went bonkers has me believing the Browns are explosive enough and collectively mature enough to be a tough out in the playoffs. The clinching will be celebrated, and it should be. But with the way Flacco has played, the Browns can realistically think they’re not just happy to score an invite to the playoff party. They’re going to be hard to kick out.



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3. Yes, I’m assuming Cleveland — the city and team — wins on Thursday. The Jets stink, and they’re starting Trevor Siemian at quarterback. It might not be easy because they still have a good defense and they’re not going to sit back and let Flacco throw to Cooper in single coverage. But I can’t see the Jets scoring more than 10 points unless the Browns melt. And given the stakes, the atmosphere and very different ways the Browns and Jets are trending headed into a short-week matchup, Cleveland can still win with a few hiccups. This is a Browns team that’s fully embraced its head coach’s focus on one play at a time and one game at a time — even with some injury issues. And it’s a defense that’s living in opposing backfields.

The Browns are 7-1 at home this season, and the one loss was a white flag game with an awkwardly handled quarterback shuffle. In their last home game, they were down by 10 in the fourth quarter — and it felt more like they were down by 28. They won anyway. The place is going to be rocking, and I think this defense has shown that it thrives off the home crowd. When the Browns clinched a playoff berth at home in the 2020 season finale, the crowd was capped at around 12,000 due to COVID-19 restrictions. Thursday is going to be Cleveland’s night to really celebrate.

By the various projection machines — and assuming a win Thursday night — the Browns are in the range of 85-90 percent to end up as the AFC’s top wild-card team and play as the No. 5 seed at the winner of the AFC South, which will be the No. 4 seed. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Texans enter the weekend tied atop the AFC South at 8-7.

This three-game win streak has given the Browns some room to breathe in terms of completing the playoff chase, and it could end up giving them a chance to rest a few players in Week 18 and set up the most favorable matchup for wild-card weekend. We’ve seen from the way December has gone around the AFC that nothing should be assumed about this week or what might happen in two weeks, but by the time the ball drops Sunday night to signal the start of 2024, the Browns should have a pretty clear idea of what they’ll need and not need in Week 18. The comeback win over the Bears was significant for many reasons.

4. Flacco started nine games over the past three seasons for the Jets, and then they never called him this season despite having lost Aaron Rodgers to injury in Week 1. Of course, that was (and is) a topic of discussion this week. But Flacco said he only thought about it because friends of his would reach out and ask if he felt the Jets were going to call.

I’m not sure I believe that, but it matters little now. Even with a makeshift offensive line, the Browns have provided Flacco enough protection to let him launch. He’s getting more comfortable as the weeks go by, and Cleveland has a full playbook that includes the ability to challenge the defense well downfield. Ten of Flacco’s 15 targets to Cooper on Sunday covered at least 15 air yards, and Pro Football Focus tracked Cooper at 211 receiving yards via the air. Simple translation: most of Flacco’s deep passes have been right on the money.

After Cooper suffered a concussion early in Flacco’s first game on Dec. 3, Flacco’s throws totaled 245 air yards on targets to Elijah Moore. They weren’t all completed, but it was clear Flacco was going to launch. Per those PFF numbers, Flacco is averaging 7.8 air yards per completion, fourth in the NFL since his Week 13 debut. Browns quarterbacks averaged 5.2 air yards per completion Weeks 1-12, 23rd in the NFL. In Houston, Flacco’s 42 attempts went for a total of 458 air yards.

I do have one prediction for this week. Both because of the way Cooper went crazy versus Houston and because Kevin Stefanski is fully aware that Moore is a former Jet: I’d look for a scripted target (or two) for Moore early in the game in hopes of creating a big play.

5. There’s been a new injury situation every week, and this week’s is a real doozy. Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins is having a Pro Bowl-type year and was three points short of breaking the franchise’s single-season scoring record, but now he’s likely done for at least the regular season. Hopkins suffered a hamstring injury while giving chase on a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown by Texans running back Dameon Pierce, and he’s out for at least this week. Punter Corey Bojorquez then suffered a quad injury later in the game when he was kicking off because Hopkins was hurt. Stefanski did not share an outlook — this week or longer term — for Bojorquez.

So, yes, the punter got hurt filling in for the kicker. Then the Browns had to go to safety D’Anthony Bell, a high school kicker, to handle kickoffs the rest of the way in Houston. Bell said he remembers making a game-winning field goal in a big game in high school, but he doesn’t remember how long the kick was. He said he’s never actually kicked in a practice during his two years with the Browns, and he took on the role of emergency kicker just because of his high school history. So when he was on the kicking net in Houston warming up, it was the first time he’d kicked in years — and maybe close to a decade.

The Browns signed former Detroit Lions kicker Riley Patterson to their practice squad Monday because he was the best and most realistic short-term option. Patterson was just cut by the Lions on Dec. 19 after some missed extra points led to him getting replaced. The emergency punter will be Matt Haack, a veteran who punted for the Colts under Browns special teams coach Bubba Ventrone last season. Assuming Bojorquez is out this week, their standard game day elevations will make it so the Browns have to use more regulars on special teams against the Jets.

The circumstances in Houston made it so Cleveland didn’t have to kick. We’ll see if there are any nervous moments this week involving the new guys.

6. This is the last Thursday night game of the year. The NFL scheduled it here believing it might be a playoff-clincher for one team. It was potentially going to be a playoff preview, too, considering the all-in nature of the 2023 season for both the Browns and Jets. The Jets have been terrible, and the Browns have become just the second team this century and the seventh in the Super Bowl era to win a game with four different starting quarterbacks in a season.



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The pass protection for Flacco was outstanding on Sunday, and the Browns expect to have Joel Bitonio available again despite some lingering soreness in his back. Bitonio left the Week 15 game early and said he had to crawl up the steps at his home that night. But he said he’s feeling much better. Backup quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is now on injured reserve due to a hip issue, meaning P.J. Walker is back on the active roster as the No. 2 quarterback. Stefanski had been using Thompson-Robinson as a change-up and running threat on select plays, so now the coach will have to go even deeper into his collection of short-yardage plays.

The kicking game has certainly been a part of the Browns’ success, so while these injuries are concerning, they earned the advantage of being a game ahead of the rest of the playoff field right now. Assuming they clinch Thursday, they could let Hopkins and Bojorquez heal in Week 18, too, in hopes of having both for the playoffs. If Walker has to be the quarterback, punter and free safety in Cincinnati with the Browns locked into the No. 5 spot, then that’s just what it will have to be. If Bell has to kick, play safety or line up at fullback, the Browns have continued to prove they can prepare their players for different situations and press the right buttons when it comes to key moments.

Throwing 75-yard touchdown passes certainly helps, too. A season removed from Flacco playing for the Jets and leading one of the all-time improbable comebacks against a messy Browns defense, he and a nasty defense will lead Cleveland in a playoff-clinching home game. You just never know in this league. And at this point, there’s no telling how far the Browns might be able to ride this wave.

(Photo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)