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Veteran Joe Flacco faces rookie CJ Stroud as Browns kick off NFL Wild Card Weekend

Photo via Sporting News

The Browns have finally returned. For the first time in over 3 years, the Browns have returned to the playoffs. And for the first time in over 15 years, the Browns playoff game will be at full capacity. Kevin Stefanski and this Browns organization set a standard of winning 3 seasons ago, and introduced to Cleveland Fans, what winning football looks like.

Wildcard 2020

After they went 11-5 in the 2020 NFL season, and had, arguably, the greatest moment in Cleveland Browns history: they went into Heinz Field and stunned the Steelers in the wild-card round, beating them with a score of 48-37. Ever since then, Browns fans have been eager to return to what that feels like. After 2 straight upsetting seasons, the Browns have returned once again. Much like 3 years ago, the Browns will be on the road, playing against a divisional winner. Though this time, it won’t be the winner of their own division, and they will travel to The Lone Star State, to Houston, to take on the Texans, in NRG Stadium. The Browns aren’t foreign to playing the Texans. They had previously played the Texans in Week 16 on Christmas Eve and routed them with a score of 36-22. This game saw Joe Flacco throw for over 300 yards passing with 368, for the third straight game, and this game saw Amari Cooper break the Browns single-game record for yards in a game, with 265 yards.

The strength of CJ Stroud

This Texans team they will play on Saturday, will look a little different than the one they played in December. The Texans were missing arguably their best player, and their runaway rookie of the year quarterback: CJ Stroud. The same quarterback who just last Saturday night, led a huge end-of-the-game drive, which led to a touchdown, and helped clinch a huge home victory against divisional rival the Indianapolis Colts, to clinch a playoff spot. So, the Browns will have to do it again with Houston, and run it back, for what will be the start of the NFL Wild Card weekend and the first game of the 2024 NFL Playoffs. The teams are set and ready to go, and Houston will look to get their revenge on Cleveland, after an embarrassing outing last time they played each other.

Texans rejuvenated

Houston’s season has stunned the fans and many others, as the team with the second overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, is now the fourth seed in the NFL Playoffs, just a year later. You have to commend and congratulate Texans first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans, who has completely changed the Houston Texans culture and reintroduced them to winning football. Ryans, the former Defensive Coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, has helped lead his Houston defense to pretty encouraging stats. Led by rookie Will Anderson, and young up-and-coming corner and former 3rd overall pick Derek Stingley, the Texans are above the league average in many categories, including yards allowed per game (330.7 14th best) rushing yards allowed (96.6, 6th fewest), and have allowed the 11th fewest points per game (20.8), and have the 5th best third-down defense in football (35.7% success rate). Ryans has this defensive unit, who many questioned if they had enough talent to be great, playing at a very high level. The Texans held their opponents to 20 or fewer points 9 times this season, and Houston’s defense is now viewed as one of the league’s better defenses. Ryans has completely turned Houston’s defense around from just a year ago, when they allowed the most rushing yards per game in the NFL: allowing 170.2 yards per game (that is not a typo) and allowing the third most yards per game with 379.5.

Offense, offense, offense

Ryans and this defense have been great, but the real story of this team is on the offensive side of the ball, and the emergence of a young star in CJ Stroud. Stroud has led this offense, which was regarded just a year ago as one of the league’s worst, with no answer at the quarterback position, to one of the league’s best, with what looks to be the answer at signal caller for years to come. The Texans offense being as good as it has been was something that no one saw coming. Houston’s offense averages the 12th most total yards per game with 342.4, averages the 14th most points per game with 22.2, and Stroud has led the offense to average 245.5 passing yards per game, which would be 7th best in football. The Texans are putting up great numbers on the offensive side of the ball and are efficient and effective.

Don’t count on turnovers

They not only have a high-functioning offense, but they rarely turn the ball over. They have had the fewest giveaways in all of football, with 14, and quarterback CJ Stroud broke the record for most consecutive passes by a rookie before a turnover with 186. Stroud has not only not turned the ball over, but his passing stats lead all rookies and are among some of the best quarterbacks in football this year. CJ Stroud has thrown for the 8th most yards with 4,108 and averages the 3rd most passing yards per game with 273.9. He has the 6th highest QB rating with 100.8 and leads all rookies with 23 passing touchdowns. These stats, and the record he has helped the Texans get, have made him the run-away rookie of the year favorite, with his odds at -4000 on FanDuel to win the award, which would mean a 10-dollar bet, would win you 24 cents: the obvious favorite! So, CJ Stroud has high hopes of winning Rookie of the Year but has even higher hopes for his team and this franchise. He and his coaching staff have been doing great things on offense, and looking to continue playing their season, for a couple more weeks.

Cleveland brings the ice to Texas

They are doing these great things with rookies at what feels like every important position including head coach, quarterback, and this list includes first-year offensive play caller Bobby Slowik, whom head coach DeMeco Ryans also brought with him from San Fransico, where he was the teams passing coordinator. This offense doesn’t have stats that jump off the paper or a ton of high-scoring games that make your jaw drop, but this team plays together, as one unit. They play contemporary football, good enough to have them finish at a 10-7 record, and win the AFC South, and rightfully earn themselves a spot in the NFL Playoffs. The Texans’ first round will be a daunting task. They play the highest wild card seed, and arguably, a top 3 team in the entirety of the playoffs: the Cleveland Browns.

Record breakers

The Browns season, though shaky, troubling, and worrisome, ended up being a fun season to watch, and a fun team to see on paper. Every week, it felt like they were breaking records. Whether it was their substitute quarterback Joe Flacco having the most passing touchdowns and yards since he started in week 13, or it was Amari Cooper breaking the Browns single game receiving record, or it was this defense allowing the fewest first downs in a season since 2010 with 247. These were just a few examples of the oddball and incredible records that the Browns would break on a week-to-week basis. And for the first time in a very long time, the Browns were in the history books, for the right reasons.

Cleveland’s undeniable defense

You cannot talk about this team without discussing the unit that Houston will probably fear most on Sunday: this Browns defense. This defense has been jaw-dropping and is leading practically every major defensive category. The Browns defense (excluding their week 18 game where they played their backups)  allowed the fewest passing yards (165.9) yards per game average (266.6) and the best third down conversion rate this year (29.4). The Browns defense allowed a score on just 23.8% of drives, as only 50 of the 210 opponents’ drives this season, have resulted in a score. To make this even crazier, 15 of the 50 scoring drives were when the opponent was in short territory, probably caused by the majority of the time by an offense that gave up the ball the most times in all of football with 37. So, the Browns have allowed scoring drives on just 35 drives when the ball is at the 50-yard line or further. This is just a mindboggling 17% of the time an opponent has scored when they had to go farther than the 50-yard line, which is truly an insane stat, and summarizes how incredible this unit has been all year. Though this defense can be described as lockdown, one major question mark looms over their heads this season: can this great defense that  we see at home, play great on the road?

Defend like they’re at home

The Browns end the season with some jaw-dropping, baffling, stunning numbers at home defensively. Allowing just 13.8 points at home: the best in football, allowing just 148.7 passing yards per game: also, a league best. Allowing just 238 total yards per game and allowing 89.5 rushing yards per game, also a league best. You can make an argument that when they are at home, they are the league’s best defense, and it’s not particularly close. Though when it comes to away games, it is a completely different story, and to be honest, a completely different team. In away games this season the Browns allowed 29.4 points per game (2nd worst in NFL), 227 passing yards per game (bottom half of league), 342.7 total yards per game (bottom 12 in football, and 114.8 rushing yards per game (bottom half in football). Truly crazy, from a unit that is the best in football at home, look completely different when they are not. So that will be the big question surrounding this defense like it has all season. Can this defense travel? Can this defense be the defense fans saw put up historic performances every time they played at home, and helped the Browns have a 9-1 record at home this year? That will be the big question and the main reason the Browns season will end on Saturday night, or go on into Las Vegas, for Super Bowl 58.

Overcoming injuries

The Browns offense this season has been a roller coaster from quarterback changes, and injuries to star players. This offense showed signs of completely falling apart. It had signs of it, but it never really did. Over these last 5 weeks, the Browns offense has been the talk of football, for all the right reasons. The Browns heard sadly, after week 10 victory versus the number 1 seed Baltimore Ravens, that their star quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a shoulder injury that would be season-ending and would put him out for the year. A game that saw him have an incredible second half, going 14/14, over 135 yards passing, and leading a game-winning field goal drive.

Enter Joe Flacco

So, the Browns painfully gave the keys to quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson after their hopeful franchise quarterback just showed signs of being great, and for two weeks, Robinson got them to a 1-1 record. The end of his third start of the season ended with him leaving the field with a concussion and he was ruled out for the following game versus the Los Angeles Rams. So, in week 13, the Browns handed the keys to a 38-year-old division rival quarterback: Joe Flacco. Going into his 16th Season, and his fourth team, Browns fans watched him for over 5 weeks, doing something they couldn’t have dreamed of. Since his first start in week 13, you can make the argument that Joe Flacco is the best quarterback the Browns have ever seen since returning to Cleveland over 20 years ago.

Flacco has unlocked something in this offense that fans have never seen, and you can even make the argument he may be playing the best football of his entire career. Since starting in week 13, Flacco led the league in passing yards with 1,616, has thrown the most passing touchdowns with 13, and has the highest average out of any QB this season for the most passing yards per game with 323.3. Flacco, for the first time in his career, had over 3 games with over 300 passing yards. During his week 14-17 stretch where he went 3-0 versus the Jaguars, Bears, and Texans, Flacco has led the offense in averaging 28.6 points per game, which would be the fourth-highest team total in all of football, and a 4-1 record in his starts. Flacco’s current production stretched over a 17-game season, would have him throwing for 5,555 passing yards, and 42 touchdowns: literal MVP numbers.

What Flacco is doing is mind-boggling, and is one of the greatest stories this season, and possibly, one of the best stories we have seen in recent football memory. Though Browns fans ask themselves: is this sustainable? Can a 38-year-old quarterback, in his 16th season, truly be the best he has ever been, and lead a team to the Lombardi Trophy? That is the question at hand, and he and this offense will rally behind him. They have no other choice. Flacco is the determining factor in how far this team can truly go. Can this magic continue, or will it end in NRG Stadium in Houston? And can Flacco take the Browns places that they have never seen before?

So, fan’s questions will be answered when the Browns play Houston at 4:30 Eastern time on Saturday night and hope to advance to the divisional round. They could play either the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, or their division rival Baltimore Ravens, depending on how the first round wraps up. This team will look to battle adversity, once again, like they have all season, on the road, with a beaten up and bruised roster, with hopes of starting their journey, to the promised land.


1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Shirley Lenardos

    January 13, 2024 at 6:07 pm

    Another great article Ben.

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