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Joe Flacco 'so fortunate' to be on playoff-bound Browns after three-TD night in win over Jets

The Joe Flacco comeback tour continues.

With a chance to clinch a playoff spot on Thursday night, the 38-year-old started off scorching and burned the league's second-ranked passing defense to finish with 309 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on 19-of-29 passing, helping power the Browns to a 37-20 win and their first postseason berth in three years.

"Man, it just felt like we were able to move the line of scrimmage early on in the game and move the ball down the field," Flacco told NFL Network Insider Mike Garafolo of the offense's start. "Got our run game going early. Got Dave (David Njoku) the ball early on and let him break some tackles. That's what he does best. We carried that first drive all the way through the first half, and that kind of propelled us."

Flacco did all this in just his fifth start since joining Cleveland off the couch in November, with nearly all of it coming in a scintillating first-half display.

He also did it without Amari Cooper, who missed Thursday night due to a heel injury four days after setting the franchise's single-game record for receiving yards with 265 against the Texans.

To compensate for Cooper's absence early, Flacco attacked with a heavy dosage of Njoku, connecting with him on four of his first five completions over the team's first two possessions for 113 yards.

The connection fueled two scoring drives out of the gate, after which Flacco started spreading the love.

Before Elijah Moore was lost to a head injury at the end of the second quarter, Flacco found him five times for 61 yards and the Browns' fourth TD of the game. He hit Jerome Ford on two scores and used the Browns' full arsenal of tight ends by completing three combined passes to Harrison Bryant and Jordan Akins for 42 yards.

By the halftime whistle, Flacco and the Browns had 34 points, already tied for the most allowed by the Gang Green defense this season. His 296 passing yards at the half were already the most the Jets had allowed in any full game in 2023.

Flacco cooled off considerably over the final couple of frames with a multi-score lead and down his top two wideouts, but his 309 passing yards by night's end still snapped a 33-game streak for New York's defense, which had not allowed a 300-yard passing game since Tom Brady in Week 17 of 2021.

Operating with a large margin for error, the defense rose to the occasion as has become the norm this year. The unit tightened against the Jets, surrendering yardage but holding them to just three points in the second half on the heels of clutch plays, such as Shelby Harris' field goal block in the third quarter.

"It was a tough second half," Flacco said in his postgame news conference of the offense's lull. "You turn into a fan at some point when you get up like that, and you just want the clock to hit zero. You've got to give a lot of credit to our defense. I know the Jets kind of moved the ball down there in the first drive, but they ended up settling for a field goal, and then you've got to give it to our field-goal block team. Our defense did a great job in the second half not really giving those guys anything and making sure we won the game."

In a season of carnage at the quarterback position across the league, no team brought the former Super Bowl MVP in for a workout before Cleveland gave him a shot in mid-November.

That includes New York, a club he played for from 2020-2022 -- one that desperately needed a solution at QB while ranking last in the NFL in passing scoring and 31st in passing yardage in the wake of Aaron Rodgers' Achilles injury.

Those Jets just fell to Flacco in their third game since being eliminated from playoff contention.

Meanwhile, he is 4-1 as the starter for a team that's now 11-5. He's thrown for 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns since Dec. 3, becoming the first player in NFL history to have 250-plus passing yards and two-plus passing TDs in each of his first five games with a club, per NFL Research.

"I'm just so fortunate to be on this team," Flacco told Garafolo regarding his current four-game streak of performances with 300-plus passing yards. "We have a bunch of guys hurt and we're still a really talented group. Kevin is calling a hell of a game every week. As a quarterback, you just get the ball to guys. It's all about them winning and getting us in the right spot, so that's what it is."

Flacco wasn't entirely flawless Thursday. Along with a stagnant second half, he had a rough moment while trying to sneak a second-quarter throw past Jermaine Johnson II in the backfield, only to see it tipped up and caught by the linebacker for a pick-six.

It was a mistake that marked his ninth turnover in just five games.

That's something to keep an eye on as Cleveland aims to progress deeper into January. For tonight, though, it was but a blip in an otherwise vintage performance.

The Browns are officially in the playoffs, still with an opportunity to wrest the AFC North from another of the QB's former team, the Ravens, and even an outside chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

Cleveland's defense has been a world-beater all season, but for the last part of its playoff-clinching push, the team owes a debt of gratitude to Flacco -- the 38-year-old veteran no one else wanted and now no one wants to face.

"It's a great story," Stefanski admitted. "I know you guys love this story. But I'm just happy for Joe. I'm happy for him having this success. Being a part of a football team. He's got something left in the tank."

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