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Browns Playoff, Super Bowl run? Joe Flacco reminds us of another backup turned champion

The similarities are there, Browns hoping a Super Bowl run is next

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Now that the Cleveland Browns have won 10 games in this 2023 campaign, the playoffs are nearly certain. The only question is what seed will they play under?

A number 5 seed will work pretty well.

Here is how the post-season games are set up: #1 has a first-week bye, guaranteed all home games, and is always pitted against the weakest-seeded club. The #2 seed plays all home games except against the #1 seed and will play the next weakest-seeded team, same for the #3 and #4 seeds.

So, for the opening week of playoff games in the Wild Card Round, #2 will play #7, #3 will take on #6, and #4 and #5 will compete.

As long as Cleveland sits at #5, this guarantees that the franchise will play the #4 seed in the first weekend of games. That would likely become either the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, or the Indianapolis Colts. One of these three clubs will win the AFC South Division and thus take the #4 seed, host a playoff game, and take on the Browns.

During this season, the Browns have beaten all three.

And even though one of these three teams will host a playoff game as the AFC South Division winner, oddly enough, they are considered the AFC’s weakest opponent going into the post-season.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Browns are starting their fourth quarterback this season. QB Joe Flacco now has three consecutive 300-yard passing yard games and has found a very good rhythm with WR Amari Cooper, is using the tight ends in the passing game more, and can scramble to throw the ball instead of gain yardage with his legs. Cleveland is also relying on their passing game more.

Flacco came to Cleveland after waiting for the call to play in the NFL again this year. He played for the New York Jets last year who traded for All-World QB Aaron Rodgers and so he became expendable. When Rodgers went down in the first game with an Achilles injury, it was very odd that the Jets did not instantly re-sign Flacco but instead relied on sub-par backups.

The last game Flacco played before joining the Browns was in Week 17 of the 2022 season and assumed that after they failed to offer him another one-year deal, a team desperate to have an experienced backup or perhaps step in and start would have come sooner than later. So, he continued to work out, run, watch what he ate, and wait. And then wait some more.

Fast forward to Week 15 and the win over the Houston Texans. Flacco had a terrific game and passed for 368 yards in the 36-22 victory. The win kept the Browns secured as the #5 seed.

But more importantly, Cleveland now has a proven talent at the most crucial position in the game of American Football – the quarterback.

Flacco seems to be having fun and still enjoys the game, the smell of football, the comradery with teammates, and the business of winning football games. When asked by the media, he has stated that he would like to play again next year.

But where? And in what capacity?

If with Cleveland, he would become engaged in a one-year deal and strictly for the backup spot. Deshaun Watson is the Browns quarterback going forward. The team is not going to pay him $40+ million a year to sit or be released. If cut, they still owe him three years’ worth of capital and then would have to pay another guy to play quarterback. It just isn’t going to happen.

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

If Flacco’s flame is indeed coming to an end, he would most likely want to start. With the Browns, he won’t unless Watson is again injured. Perhaps he would seek out another NFL club that would give him the green light to compete for the starting job.

But for now, he is leading this Cleveland team to wins and a berth in the post-season tournament.

Does Flacco’s story remind you of someone? Maybe, quarterback Nick Foles?

The Nick Foles Story

Nicholas Edward Foles had a great college career at Arizona. He went to the same high school in Austin, Texas as Drew Brees and broke most of Brees’ records. His best sport was basketball where he was a three-year starter and twice won the team’s MVP honors. In his sophomore year in college, he started and never relented the job.

He was invited to compete in the Senior Bowl and impressed during the practice week.

With his Senior Bowl success, his fourth-to-fifth-round grade was bumped into his being taken in the third round of the 2012 NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles to backup veteran Michael Vick. Towards the end of his rookie year, he became the full-time starter after Vick suffered yet another concussion.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid was fired and newly-installed Chip Kelly made an open competition between Vick, Foles, and rookie Matt Barkley. Vick won the job with Foles as his backup. After Vick suffered a hamstring injury, Foles took control and seven games his QB rating exceeded 100. His TD-to-INT ratio was 27 to two.

In 2015, he was traded to the St. Louis Rams and then re-united with Coach Reid with the Kansas City Chiefs. He entertained the idea of retirement.

But the Eagles re-signed him for the 2017 NFL season despite the franchise drafting QB Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. Towards the end of the season, Wentz tore his ACL which placed Foles once again as the starter. Philly finished 13-3-0 and secured the #1 NFC seed in the playoffs.

Divisional Round - Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Always the backup, once almost out of football, released and traded several times, and now here was Foles thrust into the starting QB position for the NFC’s best team.

And no matter how he played to close out that year, and no matter what happened with the Eagles’ season, Wentz was still the franchise quarterback going into the next season. Before his injury, Wentz had been the media and fan favorite to win the league MVP.

All Foles could do was play for the now.

After sitting out the first round of playoff games, Philly beat the Atlanta Falcons 15-10, then crushed the Minnesota Vikings 38-7 in the NFC Championship Game. This set them up to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII played in Minneapolis. The Patriots came into the game as five-point favorites who were headed by another All-World quarterback Tom Brady.

Philadelphia had instead the quarterback that nobody wanted, who had wondered if he would ever play again, and that perhaps he should seek other employment in the real world. Foles was never considered the starting quarterback going into any season.

And yet, here he was. In the Super Bowl. With a 13-game winner.

Foles knew that no matter the outcome, he was going to be regulated to being the backup the following season.

The Eagles were holding onto a 15-12 lead as the first half was coming to a close. With :53 left Philly had gotten to the eight-yard line and then to the two. Two plays later, they faced a fourth-and-goal at the one. Field goal time? Not hardly.

Then came, “the play.”

The offense remained on the field with 34 ticks left before intermission. Foles began in the shotgun formation but moved up to the line and began to shout out instructions. Suddenly, the ball was snapped to RB Corey Clement who pitched the ball to TE Trey Burton. Meanwhile, Foles had wandered out into the right flats and into the end zone as Burton tossed an easy pass to him unguarded in the end zone for the touchdown.

Its official name is Philly Philly, but is known as the “Philly Special.”

New England outscored them in the third quarter 14-7 so going into the final quarter the score was a slim 29-26 Philly lead. A field goal made it 32-26 Eagles before a Tom Brady pass to TE Rob Gronkowski lost the lead to now a 33-32 Patriots advantage.

With just over nine minutes remaining, Philadelphia began on its own 25-yard line. A fourth-and-one play was converted with 5:39 left. Several mid-range pass completions by Foles placed the Eagles to the Patriots’ 42. Then the 24. And then to the 14. In easy field goal range with a dependable kicker.

With 2:25 left in the game, Foles connected with TE Zach Ertz for an 11-yard TD pass as the Eagles would win 41-33. The victory would become the franchise’s fourth league championship, but first named the Super Bowl.

The “Philly Special” has since been revered as one of the City of Philadelphia’s greatest sports moments across all sporting venues.

Today, Foles has been enshrined for eternity. A nine-foot bronze statue was commissioned and installed in Pepsi Plaza, and then relocated outside the plaza to Lot K, close to fan walk pavers where fans could have better access for photo opps and accessible as fans enter the stadium. The statue depicts Foles on the sideline discussing with head coach Doug Peterson regarding calling the play or not.

The statue was created by Utah-based artist Raymond Gibby and took nearly 4-months to complete. When it was installed in 2018 it was unknown if it would be only for a month or two or would become a permanent fixture nestled outside Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles.

Flacco’s continuing journey

This all brings us back to Joe Flacco. He has a similar path awaiting him. Yes? Maybe?

He never retired although he is 38 years old. His agent’s phone quit ringing, and the prospects of him playing again became further and further down the rabbit hole.

Several starting quarterbacks this year became injured to which their backups were inserted. With mixed results. Despite many of these backups putting in failing results with mediocre performances, Flacco never got a single call. But he still waited, and was ready to suit up.

During his final years in Baltimore, Flacco was disrespected quite a bit by Ravens fans despite him winning that city a Super Bowl in which he was named the game’s MVP. They pressed that his physical skills were diminished, he was too old, and that his inability to run for positive yardage was a huge crutch. Then management drafted QB Lamar Jackson in the first round, and the clock began ticking on Flacco’s tenure. Suddenly he became a dim light despite his success in Baltimore.

Tennessee Titans vs Baltimore Ravens, 2009 AFC Divisional Playoffs Set Number: X81674 TK1 R3 F131

He had passed for 38,245 yards as a Raven and tossed 242 touchdown passes. He started 163 of 163 games so the durability and dependability had always been there. His 61.7% completion ratio proved he had consistency and was 96-67 as the starter.

Flacco had been a huge success and now was waiting for the recycling truck to pass by. He would spend a season in Denver, then three in New York. And suddenly, none of those mattered either.

And when Rodgers went down in Week 1, it would be a valid assumption that the Jets would get him back immediately. But the call never came, and New York floundered with an inadequate high-round draft bust instead.

Suddenly, it was November. Sticking to his dietary plan was suddenly not making much sense when he could have a meat lover’s pizza instead.

The words uttered regarding him were he was past his prime at 38, had cement blocks for feet, and was mistake-prone when he did play. His 154 career interceptions were a testament to this fact.

But he still possessed a cannon for an arm. He still could throw a pretty long ball. He would certainly be more advanced at reading an NFL defense than any journeyman or rookie which is what Cleveland had relied upon.

One only has to point to his comeback victory over the Browns last year in which he orchestrated a 14-point comeback win with less than two minutes to go in the ballgame.

Now six weeks into putting on the orange and brown, he is proving to be worth much more. He has passed the 300-yard mark in the past three games. It has been a while since any Cleveland QB has done that once much less in succession.

And the best part is that the stagnant offense the Browns were rolling out each week is now thriving despite an offensive line that at times has featured four backups and even a third-string guy.

Flacco is our Foles

Is it possible that Flacco could pull off something so wild as Foles did for the Eagles? A throwaway quarterback who nobody wanted, yet here he is on this improbable journey to help Cleveland not only get into the playoffs, but win and go deep into the post-season?

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Could Flacco pull off a Nick Foles from that infamous Eagles 2017 season and direct Cleveland to the biggest stage in professional sports towards the Super Bowl when nobody uttered one word about him still an elite athlete capable of taking a team into the promised land?

Is Flacco indeed our Foles?

To be fair, that Philadelphia roster won not only 13 games but gained the Number 1 seed in the tournament. There are hints that this year’s Browns squad has a shot at the #1 seed, but there are scenarios and conditions and events that need to happen to other teams for that to occur. With that Philly team, they did all of that on their own.

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Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images and Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Plus, that Eagles team was mega-talented with some positions three deep. Cleveland is playing with a lot of backups and has almost an entire roster on IR. Three starting offensive tackles, a stud running back and starting QB, the team’s leading tackler, gap-stopping defensive linemen, and linebackers hurt, while both kickers are either out of the year or have lingering injury issues.

We as Browns fans want Flacco to come up with his own “Philly Special.” After all, going through three other signalcallers, he really shouldn’t even be here.

And it is a fact that Deshaun Watson will be the Browns quarterback going forward.

As Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said in his postgame victory speech on Sunday after defeating Houston, “Hey fellas, the journey continues.”

Flacco’s journey.