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Will this ‘fatal flaw’ derail the Browns playoff dreams?

Joe Flacco has created excitement - and turnovers - since taking over as QB1. But can the Browns keep winning if he keeps giving the ball away?

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Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns are riding high on “Flacco Fever” as they prepare for the NFL Playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

By now most fans are familiar with the exploits of quarterback Joe Flacco:

  • Signed to the practice squad in November after starting quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
  • Inserted into the starting lineup in Week 13 with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the concussion protocol.
  • First quarterback in NFL history to have 250 passing yards and two or more passing touchdowns in each of their first five games with a franchise
  • Author of four consecutive wins to help the Browns clinch a playoff spot.

It has been a fun ride, one that took a much-deserved pause in Week 18 as Flacco rested up while the Browns closed out the season in a meaningless contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.

One area that has not been as much fun is that the Browns in particular, and Flacco specifically, can’t seem to stop turning the ball over. In the five games since Flacco took over as the starter, the offense committed 12 turnovers, nine of which have come on interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) or fumbles by Flacco.

It is impressive that the Browns managed to win four games in a row given that they committed three turnovers in three of those wins. That is in part because the defense stepped up its game by forcing 11 turnovers in the same span, which allowed the offense to start in opposing territory a league-high 11 times. (If there is one thing that offenses like, it is a short field.)

While the Browns were able to find a way to overcome the turnovers against the likes of the Chicago Bears, New York Jets, and Houston Texans, everything changes once the playoffs begin and the competition becomes more formidable.

It is that “fatal flaw” of turnovers that could potentially derail the Browns in the postseason, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell highlights in his latest column (paywalled):

Over the past five years, 11.5% of regular-season drives end in turnovers. That mark drops to 9.8% during the postseason.

So if you do have a quarterback who turns the ball over, it’s tougher to overcome those issues in the playoffs, because you can’t be as confident that the guy on the other side of the field is also going to turn the ball over more often. From 2012 to 2022, teams that turned it over two times in a game in the regular season still won 38.2% of the time. Teams that turned the ball over three times managed to win 23.5% of their contests. Yet in the postseason, those figures drop. Teams with two turnovers in a playoff game have won only 31.7% of their contests, and teams with three turnovers went 4-19, winning 17.4%.

(The Browns have) been the league’s best defense this season, and that matters as we head into the postseason, but we can’t expect them to force two or three takeaways per game throughout a four-game playoff slate. And if they can’t overcome the plays where Flacco makes mistakes, the league’s most entertaining and unexpected return may be short-lived.

Cleveland’s propensity to commit turnovers likely helps to explain, at least in part, why the offense produced a positive EPA only three times all season heading into Week 18, and just once since Week 10, according to Mike Sando at The Athletic (paywalled).

There is no debating that the offense looks better with Flacco in charge, but that might just be relevant, as Sando points out, as Flacco is ranked at No. 29 in EPA per pass attempt among 48 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes this season. While that looks good in comparison to Watson (No. 39), P.J. Walker (No. 45) and Thompson-Robinson (No. 48), it is still enough to give Browns fans a bit of agita.

This isn’t to say the Browns can’t continue to win with the way the offense is currently playing - given everything this team has overcome this season what is one more obstacle? - but it would be nice to see what they could accomplish if they had a game where they kept a clean sheet regarding turnovers.

Flacco has done that before as he went the entire 2012 playoffs without a turnover in leading the Baltimore Ravens to a championship.

If that version of Flacco still exists, and the Browns can unlock him starting this week in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the next few weeks are going to take the team and “Flacco Fever” to new heights of hysteria.