Week 17 kicks off with a matchup between two teams who have faced similar problems this season.
Both the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets lost their starting quarterbacks to injury pretty early on this season and each has had to contend with a vast array of other injuries, particularly on their offensive lines.
The two teams leaned on their defenses to get them through the worst periods, but while the Jets (6-9) stuck by second-string Zach Wilson until they were virtually out of playoff contention, the Browns (10-5) pivoted away from their substandard backups in December.
The decision to bring in former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who spent the best part of the last three years with the Jets, has saved Cleveland’s season and they enter this week with a 99% chance of making the playoffs.
A postseason berth can be confirmed with a win at a sold-out FirstEnergy Stadium, where Browns fans now believe anything is possible.
|New York Jets @ Cleveland Browns
|FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio
|8:15 PM ET, Thursday December 28
|How to watch
|Amazon Prime Video
|Jets +280, Browns -7.5
Cleveland heads into their final home game of the regular season in possession of the AFC’s No. 5 seed and the Browns still have a distant shot at overhauling the 12-3 Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title.
It’s a scenario that looked highly unlikely when they lost back-to-back games around Thanksgiving to the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams to drop to 7-5.
Flacco made his first start for the team in that 36-19 loss at SoFi Stadium but there were clear signs that the 38-year-old still had plenty of juice in his two-touchdown, 254-yard day.
He has thrown for more yards (1,307) than any other quarterback in the past four games and tossed 10 touchdown passes, tied for the most in the NFL over that span.
The Jets must be regretting not giving him a call when Aaron Rodgers went down with his Achilles injury, although head coach Robert Saleh batted away such questions in the days before this week’s clash.
Saleh described Flacco as a "Ford pickup truck - you might not like it in the summer, but in the winter months in December and January that son of a gun starts humming".
Saleh also suggested rejuvenated Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper has been responsible for making the quarterback look like a hero, going against the perception that Flacco has turned the Browns' ailing offense around.
Cooper has certainly stepped things up a notch or two since the start of December, racking up almost 40% of his 2023 receiving yards over a four-game stretch.
His 265 yards receiving against the Houston Texans last Sunday set a new Browns single-game receiving record and what’s even more remarkable is that over 200 of the yards were with the ball traveling through the air, not yards after the catch.
Cooper was targeted 15 times against the Texans and 14 times in Cleveland’s Week 14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but tight end David Njoku has been Flacco’s go-to guy in the red zone.
Njoku has caught four touchdown passes in the last three games and seems certain to figure heavily in the Browns' goal-line schemes on Thursday night.
While the Jets have one of the best cornerback duos in football and could easily throw a Sauce Gardner-sized blanket over Cooper, their defense has been prone to tight ends sliding off the line of scrimmage into open spaces in the secondary.
New York has given up eight TDs to tight ends already this year with Njoku, who is +175 as an Anytime Touchdown Scorer this week, primed to take advantage.
The Jets have not been able to unlock the full potential of their star running back Breece Hall this season as they have often fallen behind on the scoreboard so early that they virtually abandon the run.
Still, Hall has been a key figure in the passing game and enters this game off the back of a stellar showing against the Washington Commanders last week.
The former Iowa State star had 191 all-purpose yards in the Jets’ 30-28 win, gaining 95 from 10 carries on the ground and another 96 from 12 receptions.
Hall will find it much tougher to produce that kind of impact against Cleveland’s No.1 ranked defense, but he remains the Jets’ best hope of getting something going in Ohio.
With two elite defenses on show, it is perhaps no surprise that the total for Thursday’s matchup is on the low side at 34.5 points.
But another factor impacting it will be the two kickers entrusted with the field goals and extra points at a notoriously windy venue next to Lake Erie.
For the Browns, replacing the reliable Dustin Hopkins, who injured his hamstring against the Texans last Sunday while attempting to chase down a kick returner, will be former Detroit Lions kicker Riley Patterson.
Patterson’s overall numbers are not bad for a guy who has just been released, but he perhaps lacks the range of most NFL kickers these days.
Meanwhile, the Jets could be without their trusty star Greg 'The Leg' Zuerlein due to a quad injury.
He nailed the game-winning 54-yard FG with five seconds remaining against the Commanders, but would be replaced by practice squad kicker Austin Seibert if unable to play.