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Flacco giving Browns steady presence and leadership with playoff spot in reach

Joe Flacco Cleveland Browns Joe Flacco - The Canadian Press

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Joe Flacco looks much different, younger and a little less like his new coach.

The beard is gone.

“It was a mess,” said the Browns' freshly shaven quarterback.

While his facial hair may have been a bit unkempt, and made him a taller lookalike to Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, everything else about Flacco has been neat and polished — if not somewhat shocking — since Cleveland scooped him off his couch in New Jersey four weeks ago to troubleshoot their QB crisis.

Flacco has been fabulous, way better than expected.

In three games, the 38-year-old has passed for 939 yards, with 374 coming last week, when Flacco, in just his second start at home, shook off three interceptions and led a fourth-quarter rally for a thrilling 20-17 win over the Chicago Bears.

Flacco threw for 212 yards alone during a brilliant fourth-quarter performance, highlighted by him threading a 51-yard touchdown pass through three Bears defensive backs to wide receive Amari Cooper.

The comeback came inside a personal comeback, leading to speculation as to whether Flacco should be considered for a season-long NFL award.

“Who knows what constitutes as a comeback?” Flacco said, brushing aside the idea of being named Comeback Player of the Year. “I’ve only played three games. It’s kind of crazy. Come back from not going to training camp and busing kids around?”

The bottom line is that Flacco, a former Super Bowl MVP and 15-year veteran, has been a godsend for the Browns (9-5), who are on the verge of an AFC playoff berth going into Sunday's game against the Houston Texans (8-6).

He's not only salvaged an injury-riddled season for Cleveland, Flacco has the Browns and their fans believing it could be something more.

“He's a great leader for us, great veteran presence at that quarterback position,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “We’re happy to have him, a steady hand that we needed. He's doing a great job for us.”

From the moment he arrived, Flacco was confident he could play at a high level. First, though, he had to convince everyone else.

It only took a few throws in his workout last month for the Browns to show that his arm strength hasn't waned. And after a few plays in his Dec. 3 debut at Los Angeles, it became apparent that Flacco could still analyze a defense, read the field and make quality completions.

The footwork is still precise, and while he's not going to draw any comparisons to Deshaun Watson in terms of mobility, Flacco has developed a keen pocket presence through the experience of playing in 186 career games.

He's still got it.

That's not to say he's been perfect. Flacco threw three picks last week, although two of them could be attributed to a miscommunication with rookie Cedric Tillman and a deflected pass.

After the game, Flacco admitted part of him wanted to crawl into a hole and hide after making the mistakes. Instead, he made up for them, going 11 of 13 in the final quarter and connecting with Cooper on a TD that even days later seemed impossible.

With the Browns trailing 17-10 and three minutes left, Flacco rolled right and spotted Cooper running a deep crossing pattern. Flacco led him perfectly, and Cooper took it from there, making the grab, turning up field and tight-roping his way down the sideline.

On Monday, Bears coach Matt Ebeflus was still bemoaning that one of his players should have picked it off.

Flacco smiled when asked if he saw all three Bears, or if there may have been a little luck involved.

"The safety, I’m not worried about,” Flacco said. “You know there’s the corner out there on the sideline, but at the same time, there’s always some kind of flat player over there. If he’s making that pick, then you’re in trouble.

“It is funny how that throw ends up working out and it just happens to be by the ending picture you see three guys there. It was kind of like that perfect storm coming together for us. You make tight throws all the time, that one just kind of looked that way at the end.”

NOTES: All-Pro LG Joel Bitonio didn’t practice, but said he's made good progress after missing last week's game with a lower back issue. Bitonio started having back spasms in pregame warmups and by the third offensive series he couldn't get into a stance. When Bitonio went off, it meant RG Wyatt Teller was the only healthy offensive lineman from the team's Week 1 lineup. ... LB Anthony Walker Jr. (knee), S Juan Thornhill (calf), DE Ogbo Okoronkwo (pectoral) and LB Jordan Kunaszyk (calf) also sat out practice.