CLEVELAND (AP) — Joe Flacco has gone from the couch to contention.
Signed three weeks ago by Cleveland as emergency protection when quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost with a season-ending shoulder injury, Flacco has a chance to get the Browns into the playoffs — a scenario not even he could have imagined.
“It's invigorating, for sure. It's exciting,” Flacco said. “This is what you want.”
Flacco is expected to make his second start for Cleveland on Sunday as the Browns (7-5) host the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4), who are dealing with their own major issue at quarterback after Trevor Lawrence suffered a high ankle sprain against Cincinnati.
Though hobbled, Lawrence managed to practice some this week, leaving open the possibility he'll play in a game with major AFC postseason implications. If he can't, the Jaguars will start backup C.J. Beathard, who played two series Monday night after Lawrence went out.
“Whoever’s up, whoever’s rolling, we’re looking to go full speed ahead," said Jaguars tight end Evan Engram. "It’s a big game for us. It’s a game we got to go win. We’re on the road against a good team, and we’ve got to ready no matter who’s up.”
If this was a wild-card game, you could bet that Lawrence, who returned to play just four days after spraining his knee in Week 6, would be on the field.
And, truthfully, this game has major playoff vibes.
The Browns currently hold one of three wild-card spots, but their grip isn't nearly as tight after dropping road games in Denver and Los Angeles the past two weeks. Another slip up could put their playoff chances in serious peril, making the matchup with Jacksonville almost a must-win.
It hasn't helped that Jacksonville has been smashed by injuries, losing Lawrence, wide receiver Christian Kirk and left tackle Walter Little on Monday, a week after tight end Brenton Strange and left tackle Cam Robinson went down.
“It’s a violent sport we play," Engram said. "It’s unfortunate for our guys or anybody to get hurt, but that’s the nature of this game, the nature of this league. It truly is a next-man up mentality. It’s not a slight or a jab at guys that can’t go.
"It’s just the nature of the league; you’ve got to be ready to play if somebody ahead of you goes down.”
Flacco has been down this road before with Baltimore, and he's looking forward to playing in a stadium he knows well — as a visitor — and with so much on the line. Last season, the 38-year-old helped rally the New York Jets from a 13-point deficit in the final two minutes to shock the Browns.
That was in a September game. It's December and the stakes are much higher.
Flacco, who passed for 254 yards last week in his first game in nearly a year, said there is something special about playing in Cleveland, where he's 9-2 as a starter.
“You smell the grass, it just feels like football,” said Flacco. "That’s kind of always the stadiums that have kind of been attractive to myself. Smell the grass and feel like it’s football weather. And that’s the time of the year we’re in.
“We’re in December and we’re in Cleveland and it should be a lot of fun.”
Myles Garrett's injured left shoulder might be slowing him. Cleveland's top-ranked defense has no excuses.
Garrett didn't record a tackle last week, and the Browns failed to record a sack for the second straight game — a streak coordinator Jim Schwartz said must end.
“That's not us,” Schwartz said. ”We're not built that way. We have a lot of talent up front and we’re at our best when we can generate pressure with a four-man pass rush."
It starts with Garrett, the All-Pro edge rusher who was double- and triple-teamed in last week's loss to the Rams. While he's not worried about Garrett, Schwartz said the rest of his defensive front has to step it up.
“We expect our D-line to be the driving force of our defense," he said. "They’re the engine that drives us. We have to get back to clocking the quarterbacks and to building everything off of our four-man pass rush.”
Jaguars coach Doug Pederson and Schwartz know each other as well as any two coaches in the league. Schwartz was Pederson’s DC in Philadelphia for five seasons (2016-20). They won 46 games together, including the Super Bowl following the 2017 season.
That familiarity could be both good and bad.
“Just knowing him and how he coached and how he coached our defenses in Philly, you kind of know the structure a little bit,” Pederson said. “He’s changed some things schematically over his time, but he’s got a talented defense right now and they’re playing really good.”
Jacksonville is the only NFL team with a perfect road record this season — here and abroad.
Jacksonville already locked up its first winning road record since 2007.
“That was a point of emphasis in training camp that we talked about, something we needed to get better at,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got to keep that going. Obviously it’s a big road game; we’re going to play in big road games to finish the year that you’re going to have to win. This is a good challenge for us this week.”
AP Pro Football Writer Mark Long contributed to this report.
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press