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2023 NFL Season, Week 17: Four things to watch for in Jets-Browns on Prime Video

New York Jets
2023 · 6-9-0
Cleveland Browns
2023 · 10-5-0
  • WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium (Cleveland)
  • WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET | Prime Video

The final Thursday night game of the season features a scenario unimaginable even six weeks ago.

The Cleveland Browns can clinch only their second playoff spot since 2002 with a victory over the New York Jets in Week 17, thanks to the recent heroics of quarterback Joe Flacco. Cleveland also remains in the hunt for the AFC North crown, as well as the AFC’s top overall seed, although both are remote possibilities. Still, there’s plenty on the line for playoff seeding.

There’s also an interesting irony to this matchup. Flacco is best known for his time with the Baltimore Ravens (for which he was a long-time Browns tormentor, going 18-3 versus his current team). But he also spent the three past seasons with the Jets, mostly backing up Sam Darnold and Zach Wilson.

Flacco didn’t have the same team success there as he’s enjoyed with the Browns. The Jets went 1-8 in his nine starts, including 1-3 last season, but his cumulative passing numbers in New York (57.5% completions, 2,253 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions) compare somewhat favorably to what he’s done so far with the Browns (59.4% completions, 1,307 yards, 10 TDs, seven INTs in four starts).

Flacco’s one victory as Jets starter? It came last season in Week 2 in Cleveland, as he led the Jets to a stunning comeback in a 31-30 victory, throwing two TD passes in the final 1:22 of the game. 

Yet, when Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1, the Jets did not try to bring back the unsigned Flacco. Head coach Robert Saleh said this week that there was no regret in not signing Flacco, but they’re starting Trevor Siemian again this week with Wilson out with a concussion. Siemian's the fourth Jets QB to start a game this season after leading New York to a narrow Christmas Eve win over the Commanders.

Here are four things to watch for when the Jets visit the Browns on Thursday night on Prime Video:

1. Flacco can add another unlikely chapter to the story by beating his former team. When Flacco took over as starter, the Browns' season was teetering after a 36-19 loss to the Rams that dropped them to 7-5 on the season. But even with his closer-than-it-appeared defeat in his first start for Cleveland, Flacco provided the stability the Browns have craved at the position much of the season, even when Deshaun Watson played earlier in the year. Cleveland has won three straight, and Flacco seemingly has gotten better with each game. "I've said it before, (Flacco is) like a Ford pickup truck," Saleh told reporters on Tuesday. "You might not like it in the summer, but in the winter months that son of a gun starts humming." Saleh might be onto something. Flacco's completion percentage and yards per attempt have risen after every one of his four starts. His interception total has leapt recently, with five in his past two games, but Flacco's two INTs late in the first half on Christmas Eve didn't hurt in a dominant win at Houston. He's reintroduced the deep ball into the Browns' offense, and it especially has benefitted wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is questionable to play with a heel injury, and tight end David Njoku, who have seen their productivity jump since Flacco took over. Flacco's importance to the Browns increased even more this week when rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson was placed on injured reserve, which puts PJ Walker back in the QB2 role.

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2. Siemian gets another shot, but Breece Hall could be key to upset. In Week 16, Siemian was relatively efficient early in his first start this season. The Jets didn't ask for much from Siemian, who attempted mostly safer, shorter passes, yet he still had accuracy issues. Siemian completed 20 of 39 passes for 171 yards and an interception over the final three quarters, as the Commanders roared back from down 27-7 to nearly win. Siemian's red-zone pick was his worst play of the game, kickstarting the frantic comeback. The Jets found more consistent success handing off (or throwing) to Hall, who bounced back from a few ineffective outings to put up 191 yards from scrimmage and notch his first two-TD game. Rookie Israel Abanikanda was elevated to RB2 status last week, rushing nine times for 43 yards; the Jets figure to keep giving him looks down the stretch. When the Jets throw the ball, the usual suspects -- Hall, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and tight end Tyler Conklin -- figure to receive the bulk of the targets. But it would be surprising if the Jets opt to throw it 49 times, as they did this past Sunday. Cleveland has arguably the best pass defense in the NFL, ranking first in passing yards per game (160.1), second in yards per attempt (5.20), first in INT percentage (3.46%) and fourth in sack percentage (9.52%). Led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett, the Browns have strong talent on all three levels of the defense. Their run defense is stout, but it's a more vulnerable area to exploit, as three opponents have run for 168 yards or better against Cleveland this season.

3. Can Browns survive special teams injuries? Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins (hamstring) is ruled out for Thursday, and it's a big deal. Hopkins has been a monster this season, hitting 33 of 36 field-goal attempts (8 of 8 from 50-plus yards) and four game-winning field goals (plus a 55-yarder to provide the winning margin versus Jacksonville). His replacement, Riley Patterson, was a surprise cut by the Lions after a missed extra point against the Bears in Week 4, but he's 15 of 17 on field-goal tries (1 of 2 from 50-plus) this season. The Browns might also have a change at punter, as Corey Bojorquez was also hurt last week and is doubtful to play. Cleveland signed veteran punter Matt Haack to the practice squad as a possible replacement. Hopkins hurt his hamstring attempting to tackle Houston's Dameon Pierce on a 98-yard kickoff-return TD, the first allowed by Cleveland this season. They've been pretty good on coverage units this season overall, but the Jets have a weapon in rookie Xavier Gipson, who had a game-winning punt-return touchdown in overtime in Week 1 and averaged 27.3 yards per kickoff last week versus the Commanders. The Jets are also waiting to see the health status of kicker Greg Zuerlein, who hit the game-winning 54-yard field against Washington but is questionable to play with right quadriceps tightness.

4. Sauce Gardner, Jets defense try to slow down Browns weapons. Cooper set a Browns record with 265 yards receiving last week, and he's already reached his career high in receiving yards, with 1,250 through 15 games. For at least part of Thursday's game, you can expect Cooper, provided he plays, and Gardner to lock horns, although the Jets don't typically travel their corners. Gardner has lined up on the left side of the defense 92.1% of the time, according to Next Gen Stats, and Cooper has lined up on both sides almost equally. But when they do face off, it should be a battle. Gardner has pitched a shutout the past two weeks, allowing zero catches, and fellow cornerback D.J. Reed bounced back after a tough Week 16 to play well last season. Cooper has been one of Flacco's favorite targets this season, especially on vertical routes. Cooper is battling a heel injury, but it's not considered serious. Njoku also figures to be a big factor. The Jets have allowed eight TD receptions to tight ends, and Njoku has been targeted on 35.7% of his routes in the red zone this season, which ranks fourth in the NFL (minimum 25 routes), via NGS. The Browns would like to balance things out with a run game, but Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt have averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry since Flacco took over, as the offensive line is in tough shape. Running the ball against the Jets often is a fruitless endeavor, too, as they rank fifth in defensive rushing success rate (63.9%) this season, per NGS.

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