Flacco makes himself at home in Cleveland. Browns going with QB as their starter for playoff drive

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CLEVELAND (AP) — For months, Joe Flacco waited patiently for a phone call, wondering if his NFL career was over after 15 seasons.

Nobody wanted him. Nobody needed him.

But as he stood in the middle of Cleveland's locker room celebration Sunday, surrounded by new teammates, some to whom he's barely spoken while getting acclimated the past three weeks, Flacco was overwhelmed by emotions.

The Browns have satisfied his football fix.

“I feel like a 10-year-old kid,” said the 38-year-old quarterback, clutching a game ball.

Flacco has become a surprising savior in Cleveland, of all places. The Browns expected to be in the AFC playoff race when the season began, but could never have dreamed they would be doing it with Flacco — once a Ravens rival, now a friend.

And quite a comeback story.

Signed on Nov. 20, Flacco has passed for 565 yards and five touchdowns in two starts with Cleveland, and after he threw for 311 a nd three TDs in a 31-27 win over Jacksonville, coach Kevin Stefanski didn't waste a moment in declaring the Super Bowl 47 MVP his starter for the rest of this season.

As if there was ever any question.

In only two games, Flacco has not only shown he can still complete passes in tight coverage windows, but he has given the Browns hope and steadying leadership in an injury-riddled season that still has a chance to be special.

Cleveland's offense finally looks the way Stefanski envisioned, but only got to see in small doses as Deshaun Watson dealt with rustiness last season following his NFL suspension and while battling a shoulder injury in 2023.

Flacco's not perfect, far from it. The Browns, though, aren't asking for flawlessness.

No disrespect to rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but Cleveland needed a quality upgrade to prevent this season from slipping away and Flacco, the fourth QB to start and win for the Browns this season, is a perfect fit.

“Joe’s a pro,” Stefanski said. "He’s a pro in that meeting room. He’s a pro on the field. I like how he works and his teammates are getting to know him. Thrust into playing, you've got to get to know your teammates and I think that’s what Joe’s doing a really good job of and just being around this building and getting to know these guys.”

Flacco had a first and milestone on Sunday.

After picking up his 100th career regular-season win, Flacco improved to 10-2 as a starter in Cleveland Browns Stadium, a place he has visited many times. This time, he did it wearing an orange helmet.

“It’s a different perspective from the Browns sideline than I’m used to,” he said. “But there is something nice about having played a bunch of games in here and be able to come back and now call it home.”

WHAT'S WORKING

Stefanski's touch this season, whether overcoming injuries, juggling quarterbacks or Sunday on fourth downs, has been remarkable.

The Browns have been arguably the league's most resilient team, and that's a direct reflection on Stefanski, who has kept his players focused and motivated.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Like so many other teams, the Browns are banged up and need to heal up.

They're already missing their starting quarterback (Watson), star running back (Nick Chubb) and without both starting offensive tackles. Center Ethan Pocic and safety Grant Delpit were both injured Sunday and All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett has played the past two weeks with an injured left shoulder.

Cleveland's depth is being stretched to its absolute limit and the Browns can't afford many more injuries.

STOCK UP

Tight end David Njoku had his first career two touchdown game, atoning for some drops the past few weeks.

Njoku was wide open for a 34-yard TD in the first quarter, and caught a short pass from Flacco over the middle and turned it into a 30-yard score in the second to put the Browns ahead 14-0.

In his seventh season, Njoku has already eclipsed his career high for receptions (59). His 23 touchdowns are the second most for a tight end in club history, trailing Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, who had 47.

STOCK DOWN

Granted the weather wasn't great, but there were empty seats scattered throughout Cleveland Browns Stadium for Sunday's game — arguably one of the biggest the Browns have played in front of the home fans in years.

INJURIES

The hits keep coming for the Browns, who won't have starting right tackle Dawand Jones for the rest of the season. The massive Jones is scheduled for right knee surgery, ending his strong rookie year. ... Stefanski was typically vague on Sunday's injuries: Pocic (neck stinger), Delpit (groin), RB Jerome Ford (hand) and DT Jordan Elliott (concussion). ... CB Denzel Ward (shoulder) missed his third straight game, but Stefanski said he's “getting close.” Ward practiced last week. ... S Juan Thornhill (calf) aggravated his injury in warmups.

KEY NUMBER

31 — Field goals for kicker Dustin Hopkins, moving him past Phil Dawson (2008) for the most in a season for the Browns. Hopkins also improved to 8 of 8 beyond 50 yards with a 55-yarder with 3:10 remaining Sunday.

WHAT'S NEXT

A home game Sunday against the Chicago Bears (5-8), who have won three of four and are coming off an impressive win over Detroit.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL