Dawg Days is a weekly feature by Chris McNeil on the Cleveland Browns. The Three Deep section tackles facets of the Browns’ upcoming game from all sides — advantages, disadvantages, and a final view on the contest.
This week’s matchup for the Browns is right on the nose for an NFL game played in the year of our Lord 2023.
We have two teams battling for the AFC playoffs and both teams are looking at entering the game with a backup quarterback at the helm. This season, 52 different quarterbacks have started a game in the NFL thus far and that number may reach 54 by the end of the weekend. The Browns themselves, of course, being on starter number four (Deshaun Watson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, PJ Walker, and Joe Flacco), and Jacksonville is now looking at the prospect of starting 30-year-old CJ Beathard as Trevor Lawrence went down on Monday night with a high ankle sprain.
The potential loss of Lawrence for Sunday meant a big shift in the line for this game. The Browns opened as a three-point dog at home for Sunday afternoon’s game, but by Wednesday that line has moved a total of a full touchdown in the Browns’ favor. As we sit today, the Browns will enter Sunday as a three-point favorite at home (Tipico -3).
The Jaguars enter the game coming off a huge overtime loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals in the best Monday Night Football matchup of the season. Cincinnati backup quarterback Jake Browning carved up the Jags defense and didn’t look like a greenhorn in leading the Bengals to the unexpected win.
The Browns have got to be the happiest team in the league right now to be back at home this week. Their road trip out to Denver and Los Angeles culminated in two losses. This after spending the entire week in LA trying to get the offense to gel with a new quarterback in Joe Flacco.
In his press conference after the game, coach Kevin Stefanski was asked whether it ultimately was a good idea to spend the whole week with the team out on the coast rather than flying back between games. Stephanski pointed out he did not measure the trip by the wins or losses and felt the team made progress because of the stay. Nonetheless, a few nights back in their beds and playing Sunday in front of a playoff-hungry home crowd should help lift the spirits of the team this week.
That home crowd will also get their first look at Joe Flacco in a Browns uniform in Cleveland Stadium after seeing him give the Browns fits for many years as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.
Joe Flacco & Elijah Moore (42-yd reception)
🔸 Air Distance: 54.7 yards
🔸 Target Separation: 1.0 yards
🔸 Completion Probability: 26.9%*
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 3, 2023
On Monday, Stefanski praised Flacco’s first Browns start. “I thought Joe did a nice job,” Stefanski said. “We were sharp getting in and out of the huddle. We weren’t perfect. There were a few things that we did alignment-wise that weren’t great. But I thought Joe did a nice job in the huddle, which you’d expect from a veteran like Joe.”
His performance also turned out to be somewhat historic — per NFL’s NextGenStats, “Joe Flacco attempted 19 passes over 10 air yards Sunday. That was the most in a game by a Browns QB in five years.”
His performance was not perfect, however, as he did have a clutch mistake late in the game Sunday. With the Browns trailing 20-19 and 6:51 left, Flacco threw deep on first down off play action to wide receiver Elijah Moore. The ball came out like a wounded duck and former Browns safety John Johnson III (had to be him) intercepted the pass and returned it 42 yards to Cleveland’s 24. This ended up being the dagger in the game.
If Flacco can avoid these types of mistakes and continue to be the steady hand at the till for the Browns, the entire offense should be able to find a groove…
If Flacco can avoid these types of mistakes and continue to be the steady hand at the till for the Browns, the entire offense should be able to find a groove against a Jaguars defense that ranks in the bottom three against the pass, yielding 261.7 yards per game — only the Chargers (265.8) and Commanders (266) give up more on average.
It is a bit weird to see the defense in the weak side this week, as they have been dominant and historic all year long. Right now, however, this defense is different and in need of a resurgence. The injury to Denzel Ward has definitely hampered the Browns defense against the pass. On Sunday, the Browns gave up several big plays and Martin Emerson was picked on all afternoon.
Ward’s status for Sunday is still unclear. He is dealing with a shoulder injury which may or may not be structural in nature and it has been deemed week-to-week on whether he can play (stop me if you have heard this before, Browns fans). If he is out again Sunday, the team will need the secondary will need to rally in his absence to prevent the big plays they surrendered in the Rams game.
To help out that secondary, the Browns pass rush needs to improve. The group registered no sacks on Matthew Stafford on Sunday and allowed him to pass for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
To help out that secondary, the Browns pass rush needs to improve. The group registered no sacks on Matthew Stafford on Sunday…
The leader of that rush is Myles Garrett who continues to deal with a… wait for it…. shoulder injury that continues to slow his game. He registered no stat line for Sunday — no pressures, no sacks, no tackles, nothing. The Browns need at least a semblance of his former self to get after CJ Beathard on Sunday.
The conventional belief that defense travels does not pertain to the Cleveland Browns. They have simply not been nearly as good on the road as they have at home. The good news is that they are home this week. The team is 5-1 at home and will need to capture some of the energy of the Dawg Pound again on Sunday to make life miserable for the fighting CJ Beathards.
With the NBA getting into the finals of its In-Season Tournament, the Browns are facing a bit of one themselves. There are five games left on the schedule and the games against AFC playoff foes are critical. This week, the Jags are the number 4 seed and the Browns come in at number 7 in the AFC. And looking ahead, the Browns have the lowly Bears coming to Cleveland next week.
The Browns need to capitalize on these opportunities at home if they expect to make the NFL playoffs this year. I think they will help their case this week.
Prediction: Browns 34-27
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