Browns 6-pack: Why protecting home field could help secure a playoff berth


Six thoughts on the week that was, the Cleveland Browns fooling no one with their quarterback decision and the quest to get to 10 wins.

1. We start with the quarterback news of the week — like we have just about every week in this roller-coaster season — as coach Kevin Stefanski has declined to publicly name a starter for Sunday’s game against the 8-4 Jacksonville Jaguars.

It’s going to be Joe Flacco, but Stefanski wasn’t making that official Friday. Dorian Thompson-Robinson practiced this week and cleared the concussion protocol. But starting Flacco is the right decision, and it was always going to be the move for the Browns. Stefanski will count on Flacco to efficiently operate the offense and occasionally test the Jaguars with the deep ball. Whether it’s by a big gain that ignites the crowd, by the “butt cheek” ruling of last week or even by a pass interference call, the deep ball being back in the game plan can boost this offense. Flacco, quite obviously, can still rip it.

The 7-5 Browns have an experienced roster that’s in a favorable spot as far as making the playoffs, but they don’t have much margin for error. Going with the experienced quarterback is the only choice, and Flacco should only be more comfortable with another week of practice and his first game in 11 months under his belt. Thompson-Robinson said he felt good going through his practice week. The rookie said he “will be ready if it’s me,” but Cleveland will go with Flacco first and Thompson-Robinson second. There could be a package of plays for Thompson-Robinson given his mobility and the way the Jaguars would have to make a significant adjustment if Thompson-Robinson entered the game, but the Browns are going to let Flacco try to throw them into the playoffs.

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Joe Flacco’s ability to throw the deep ball gives the Browns a boost on offense. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

2. Part of the explanation for why Stefanski didn’t come out and name Flacco the starter before Friday can be found in the situation facing the opponent this week. The Jaguars lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to an ankle injury in their overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday, and they started the practice week thinking Lawrence would not be able to play. Backup C.J. Beathard also was limited Wednesday and Thursday with a shoulder injury, and Jacksonville had Lawrence on the field Thursday and Friday in a limited capacity.

Officially, the Jaguars are listing Lawrence as questionable and playing the game-time decision card. If it is a high ankle sprain, Lawrence isn’t going to be able to play. But regardless of what it is, the Jaguars have succeeded in complicating the Browns’ preparation for Sunday.

We heard from Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and several players this week about having to prepare for every scenario. That included Lawrence playing, Lawrence playing with limited mobility and also Beathard starting for the first time with Jacksonville — and the first time since 2020 when he was with the San Francisco 49ers.

Mobile quarterbacks have given the Browns fits. A healthy Lawrence is mobile and dangerous. Beathard isn’t very mobile, so the preparation is different — and the Jaguars’ ceiling is much lower without Lawrence. They also lost one of their best playmakers, wide receiver Christian Kirk, on Monday night. If the Browns play strong run defense and don’t hand the Jaguars good field position with turnovers or other miscues, it’s hard to see Jacksonville scoring many points — unless Lawrence is Superman. Maybe he is, but I’m guessing the Browns will get a gift and face Beathard on Sunday.

Another thing to watch: The Jaguars will be without both left tackle Cam Robinson and his primary backup, Walker Little, versus Myles Garrett. Even if Garrett isn’t 100 percent, that feels like a nightmare for whoever is playing quarterback for Jacksonville.

3. Amari Cooper returned to practice Friday as part of his path through the concussion protocol. The Browns are counting on Cooper clearing the protocol on Saturday, but he’s officially listed as questionable. Also listed as questionable are Denzel Ward (shoulder), Dawand Jones (knee) and Cameron Mitchell (hamstring), who’s in line to be activated from injured reserve. Ward practiced all week and should return after missing the last two games.

Elijah Moore, who has previous experience with Flacco and got 12 targets that totaled an eye-popping 255 air yards last week, will again be a big part of things, even with Cooper likely to return. Stefanski will also make sure David Njoku is more involved. As I wrote earlier in the week, Marquise Goodwin is going to get a couple of chances, too, as he’s set to return from a month in the concussion protocol. The Browns have missed on their deep shots to Goodwin this season, but they haven’t had Flacco throwing them.

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Last week’s pass protection was really good, and Cleveland wants to keep Flacco out of difficult spots against blitzes. He has some flaws, and it remains to be seen if the Browns can overcome potential turnovers. But this is a game Cleveland has to and should win, and Flacco playing well is probably the biggest key to that happening.

4. Yes, I’m projecting a defensive bounce-back. The Browns couldn’t get to Matthew Stafford last week. They’ve been attacked with misdirection and quick hitters in the last two games. Garrett didn’t blame his shoulder injury, but regardless of how bad it was (or is), the Rams’ quick game was designed to neutralize him — and it mostly succeeded.

The Browns didn’t get a sack from their defensive line in either of their road-trip losses.

“That’s not us,” Schwartz said. This Cleveland defense getting its swagger (and disruption) back is certainly an emphasis going forward. The Browns have not been the same defense on the road this season, and though they’ve been good in their two most recent home games against helpless and hapless offenses, the defense hasn’t been as dominant since late October. And it’s not that any defense always dominates, it’s just that the Browns were making one key play or getting one key takeaway when needed earlier this season, and they didn’t get those big plays or big swing moments against the Denver Broncos or Rams.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. A team built on firing off the ball probably isn’t doing so as quickly in Denver in late November as it is at home in September. You don’t get to play Clayton Tune or Ryan Tannehill every week. Opposing offensive coordinators have plenty of film of the Browns getting in the backfield and have adjusted accordingly. Certainly, the many moments in which Garrett has wrecked game plans and third-down calls have been better for the Browns than the others. Sometimes, it comes down to one tackle being made or a closing safety or linebacker being either right on time or a half-second late.

When the Browns have Garrett and Ward and get to play with the lead, they’re still capable of being an elite defense. Against a backup quarterback at home, the guess is they’ll be something resembling that on Sunday.

The Browns are allowing 10 points per game at home and more than 30 per game on the road. The latter number includes the points opposing defenses scored in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and the late flurry by the Rams, but the difference is still staggering. They’re digging themselves early holes, too. At home this season, they’re only allowing an average of about 30 yards in the first quarter. On the road, they’re giving up more than 100.

Per TruMedia, Cleveland has allowed league lows in points per drive (0.79) and yards per play (3.4); the latter is on pace to be the best by any defense this century. On the road, the Browns have allowed 2.1 points per drive (19th entering Week 14) and 5.9 yards per play (27th).

Here’s what it comes down to: The Browns have to win their three remaining home games so the Dec. 24 matchup at Houston can be a bonus and not one that decides their playoff fate.

5. The goal is to get to 10 wins. Playoff projections remain fluid because this week features some significant AFC games and because we continue to see quarterback changes. The Jaguars, five days ago, were eyeing the AFC’s top seed and a first-round bye. If they have to play Beathard for a game or two, they could end up in a fight just to make the postseason.

All the Browns have to do to win 10 is hold serve at home. The season has been quite a ride, as you know, and all they need to do to make the playoffs is pair something close to their usual home defensive effort with a competent and efficient offense. The occasional deep ball would be the icing. Flacco said the chance to go from waiting for a call to leading a playoff push is “invigorating” and “exciting,” and that should be the feeling throughout the locker room. All the quarterback change and turmoil could have easily sunk the season — similar things have sunk seasons in other places. But this Browns team is still alive.

Nobody in Cleveland is planning a mid-February Super Bowl parade, but it’s fair to say it would qualify as a disappointment if the Browns somehow went from 7-3 to missing the playoffs. And if this defense can get healthy and play like it has for much of the year, the Browns would be an annoying wild-card opponent for someone. With five games left, it’s still too early to know who’s going to be standing or alive going into the last week. But it’s not too early to say that if the Browns can beat the Jaguars and the Chicago Bears next week, they’ll stay ahead of the traffic jam.

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6. If you have your guys healthy and available in December, you have a chance. That’s true this year and every year, for this team and most others.

Ward coming back is a big deal. Cooper being able to play Sunday would change a lot, this week and potentially into the future. Flacco opens up chances for Cooper that weren’t in the playbook with previous quarterbacks. The Browns have to clean up their drops — Pro Football Reference has them at 29 for the season, second most of any team — but if they can give Flacco time and get the pass rush they’re capable of producing, they can win enough to make the postseason.

The Jones injury is concerning. He’s still developing as an overall prospect, but he’s been especially good in pass protection. Stefanski said Jones “tweaked his knee” in practice Thursday and that the Browns will work up until Sunday morning, if necessary, to try to get him ready. If Jones can’t play, Cleveland would be playing two backup tackles. James Hudson III, who would replace Jones at right tackle, is graded 83rd of 83 eligible tackles on the season by Pro Football Focus.

Garrett against a third-string left tackle is equally, if not more concerning. The Browns can win, and I think they will. Something in the 20-10 range.

(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)





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