Flacco faces Jets, his former team, with chance to push surging Browns into AFC playoffs
CLEVELAND (AP) — Joe Flacco's short stint with the Browns has been stunning, storybook, almost unbelievable.
Like everyone else, the New York Jets have watched him from afar — and maybe wondered what might have been.
On Thursday night, Flacco, who in just over a month has revived his career while rescuing Cleveland's injury-filled season, can lead the Browns back into the playoffs for only the second time since 2002 with a win over the Jets.
The same Jets who chose not to re-sign the 38-year-old quarterback during the offseason or even after Aaron Rodgers' Achilles tendon injury when he fell to the MetLife Stadium turf four plays into his first game with New York.
Instead, the Jets (6-9) have cycled through QBs — Trevor Siemian will start against the Browns — in a season that crashed weeks ago.
Jets coach Robert Saleh swears the team doesn't rue passing on Flacco.
“Never regret,” Saleh said. "You always go into things with what you hope being a sound decision. Every decision we make comes with deep thought and logic. But no, there’s no regret there.”
Still, Saleh surely has to think about what Flacco, who went 1-8 as a starter from 2020-22 with New York, would be doing for the Jets now.
“No, I don’t think I ever let myself go there,” Saleh said. “But I am pumped to watch him play. It’s fun for any guy that you’ve gotten an opportunity to coach and be around to have success and he’s definitely having it right now.”
The Browns (10-5) probably wouldn’t be in this position without Flacco.
He has passed for 1,307 yards and 10 touchdowns while going 3-1 in four starts. It’s been something of a blur for the 15-year veteran, who finally has moved into an apartment after spending his first few weeks in town holed up in a hotel.
Once a villain while playing for rival Baltimore, Flacco has become a Cleveland cult hero.
Browns fans quickly have adopted him as one of their own.
“This city’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how welcoming everybody has been. It’s definitely been a little bit surreal in terms of how people have treated me around here. That stuff always feels good, so hopefully we can keep it going for them.”
Things could have been so different for Flacco if the Jets had called. But they didn't, and he holds no bitterness.
“I enjoyed my time while I was there, and it is what it is,” he said. "I’m happy to be where I am, that’s for sure. Listen, there’s 32 teams in the NFL. They’re just another one of those teams. I got a lot of guys over there I really respect and had an awesome few years with in that locker room. So a lot of respect for those guys.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I love him,” Saleh said of Flacco. "I love the way he prepares, really pumped for him and the success he’s having. But it’s just the decision we made in terms of the quarterback room and the way we developed it over the course of OTAs and training camp and it was just the decision that we made.”
Flacco had his finest moment with the Jets in Cleveland.
In Week 2 last season, Flacco threw two of his four TD passes in the final 1:22 as New York, trailing by 13 points, pulled off a stunning 31-30 win over the Browns.
“Pretty damn memorable,” Flacco said this week when asked about the comeback.
The loss haunted the Browns, who never recovered on the way to a 7-10 finish.
“Definitely try to forget it, but you also don’t want to forget it,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “We still got that stinging pain, that stinging urge to get back out there, improve ourselves from last year’s loss.”
BREECE THE BEAST
Jets running back Breece Hall was struggling, along with the rest of New York's worst-ranked offense, for several weeks. One huge game reminded everyone how much of a playmaker he can be.
Hall went nine games without rushing for more than 50 yards, but he broke out for 95 and two touchdowns along with 12 catches for 96 yards in last week's win over Washington. He's the first player in the Super Bowl era with 190 or more yards from scrimmage, 12 receptions and two TD runs.
“He’s awesome,” Siemian said. “He makes some unbelievable plays. I mean, shoot, there’s nothing he can’t do.”
The Jets enter the game at Cleveland having used an NFL-high 12 starting lineups on their offensive line, including a different starting five in each of their past 11 games.
New York might finally have some stability, though.
Left tackle Mekhi Becton, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Joe Tippmann, right guard Jacob Hanson and right tackle Carter Warren started Sunday against Washington and appear on track to start again Thursday night. It would be the first time since Weeks 3 to 5 that the Jets had the same starting O-line start consecutive games.
NO FLY ZONE
The Jets have been downright stingy when it comes to shutting down opponents’ passing games.
New York hasn’t allowed 300 yards passing in 33 straight games, the league's longest active streak. The previous time the Jets gave up 300 or more yards came in Week 17 of the 2021 season when Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady threw for 410.
“I saw that on Twitter and had no clue we had done that, so that was really cool to see,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “But it’s not something we think about.”
This week, the Jets have been thinking about Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper, who dominated the Texans for 265 yards last week and who may have surpassed 300 if not for sitting out a portion of the fourth quarter with the Browns up big.
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, N.J., contributed to this report.
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