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The delightful dozen: 12 key factors that bring the Browns into the playoffs

A carton contains 12 eggs. Christmas has 12 days. Programs rely on 12 steps. Jim Brown was one of “The Dirty Dozen.” And, of course, the simplest way to buy beer or doughnuts is in a group of 12.

The Browns went 11-6 to earn a wild card spot and probably would’ve gotten to 12 wins if they hadn’t rested their starters in the meaningless finale in Cincinnati. As they embark on a rare playoff trip — one filled with expectations — here are 12 reasons they reached the second season and are three wins away from their first Super Bowl appearance.

The journey begins Saturday in Houston.

SUPER JOE

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The Joe Flacco impact can’t be denied or overstated.

The Browns had plenty of success before he entered the lineup, going 7-4 and getting wins from quarterbacks Deshaun Watson, P.J. Walker and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but it’s not an exaggeration to say Flacco saved the season while inspiring the locker room and fan base.

The Browns may have been able to qualify for the playoffs after Watson was lost for the season in Week 10 with a broken bone in the throwing shoulder. The defense and special teams had played great, and coach Kevin Stefanski had managed to squeeze a couple of wins out of Walker.

But the ceiling was limited with Thompson-Robinson, a rookie fifth-round pick. Flacco has people believing the sky’s the limit.

“The way he sees everything, reads the defenses, he’s really like another coach out there for us and the way he keeps his poise and doesn’t panic under pressure,” running back Kareem Hunt told The Chronicle-Telegram. “He’s been able to make big plays at big times for us. And the other thing is his deep ball. It’s crazy. He has quite the arm.”

The story is easy to cheer.

The former Super Bowl MVP and longtime starter will turn 39 on Tuesday and went unsigned all season until the Browns called after Watson was hurt. Less than two weeks after signing, Flacco started and threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the Rams. He hasn’t lost since or thrown for fewer than 300 yards. He’s 4-1 with 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns.

He had won a total of three games in the previous 17 starts and four years but insisted he had plenty left in the tank and was confident he could still play at a high level. He’s right, picking up the system and throwing for 300 yards in four straight games for the first time.

Adding a layer to the plot: Flacco spent the first 11 years of his career with the archrival Ravens and went 17-3 against the Browns.

YOU’RE MY INSPIRATION

So much of the season was about overcoming adversity in the form of devastating injuries. Right tackle Jack Conklin was lost for the year in the opener, then the biggest blow came the following week in primetime in Pittsburgh.

Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, the heart and soul of the team, sustained torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments as well as other damage to the left knee on a hit from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s the same knee in which the posterior cruciate, lateral collateral and medical collateral ligaments tore while he was at the University of Georgia.

The injury ended his season and left the future of his career in doubt. He became a rallying point, as the team dedicated the season to him. He’s been around the team facility throughout the rehab process that required two surgeries.

“He’s such a leader on our team,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “But after that I feel like we bounced back pretty well. So after that moment, losing a guy like that, I knew whoever else we lost we’ll be fine.”

The serious injuries never stopped. In addition to Watson, the top three tackles had season-ending knee surgery, safeties Rodney McLeod (biceps) and Grant Delpit (groin) had surgery and went on injured reserve, as did linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (knee) and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst II (pectoral).

The Browns continued to defy the odds and prosper.

GUIDING LIGHT

The contract extension is coming for Stefanski and it’s well-deserved. A team doesn’t win with four quarterbacks and without many of its best players without the coach moonlighting as a magician.

Stefanski’s influence has been obvious throughout the season and he hasn’t swung and missed often, including as a play caller.

His decision to start training camp at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia raised eyebrows, even among players, but they keep citing it as a major reason for the close bond that’s helped them survive the injuries and other problems. He knew the team lacked chemistry in 2022 and went out of the way to make sure that wasn’t an issue again.

Stefanski tweaked the offensive system and designed the game plans to mask the weaknesses of the quarterback, keep the tackles out of difficult situations and compensate for not having Chubb for the final 15 games. He might have been at his best in the Dec. 10 win over the Jaguars that stopped a two-game losing streak and started a four-game winning streak. The Browns were 3-for-3 on fourth down, then he made the right call by sending Dustin Hopkins out for a late 55-yard field goal that put them up by two scores.

The Browns qualified for the postseason for the third time since returning in 1999. Stefanski’s been at the helm for two of them.

“He’s Coach of the year. I don’t think that’s even close,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.

THE MAESTRO

Perhaps Stefanski’s smartest decision came in the days following the 2022 season. The Browns went 7-10 for their second straight losing season and the defense underachieved. Stefanski fired coordinator Joe Woods and quickly hired Schwartz.

The turnaround was swift and sensational. The Browns had the No. 1-ranked defense throughout the season, leading the league with 270.2 yards allowed.

Schwartz’s scheme was an integral part of the transformation. It’s built around a deep and attacking front four, which was led by Myles Garrett, and unlocked the playmaking ability of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Delpit. Schwartz was able to rely on a group of corners that could match any set of receivers in man-to-man coverage.

The changes went much deeper.

Schwartz charged the players to lead the league in “badassery” and promoted celebrations and unity. The defense always looks like it’s having fun and gave the fans plenty of reason to celebrate.

AT THE FOREFRONT

A playoff appearance in these circumstances wouldn’t have been possible without a deep roster that needed reinforcements but absorbed the multitude of injuries. General manager Andrew Berry’s in charge of the talent acquisition and kept it coming, from trading for Hopkins before the season to signing left tackle Geron Christian on Oct. 31 to settling on Flacco. Large or small, most of the moves hit.

The roster fortification began in the offseason when Berry remade the defensive line to fit Schwartz’s requirements. He signed tackles Dalvin Tomlinson, Hurst and Shelby Harris and end Ogbo Okoronkwo and traded for end Za’Darius Smith.

Suddenly Garrett was surrounded by talent, and the opposing quarterbacks paid the price.

BEST OF THE BEST

Garrett still stood above the rest and is expected to be voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in his seven-year career.

He finished with 14 sacks despite sitting out the finale and facing a nearly constant barrage of double and triple teams. In fact, when Garrett sees only one blocker in his way, he knows the play is a run or a quick pass.

“Myles Garrett is one of the best players to ever play this game,” Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud said Tuesday. “He proves that week in and week out.”

Garrett went through a stretch of five games without a sack, as opposing coaches made it their mission to not let him beat them. That created more opportunities for his teammates, and the wins kept coming.

Garrett had several memorable games, including a 27-3 Week 3 win over the Titans in which he embarrassed left tackle Andre Dillard. He had 3.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble as the Browns allowed 94 total yards.

KARDIAC KIDS II

Starting in Week 6, the Browns brought back memories of the famously fun team from four decades earlier led by quarterback Brian Sipe. They beat the 49ers on a field goal with 1:40 left, the Colts with a touchdown with 15 seconds left, the Steelers with a field goal with two seconds left and the Bears with a field goal with 32 seconds left — surviving a Hail Mary that was in the stomach of a Chicago receiver.

The best of the bunch came Nov. 12 in Baltimore. The Browns trailed 24-9 early in the third quarter and 31-17 with 11:34 left then scored the last 16 points, including another Hopkins winner, this one from 40 yards as time expired.

Watson played through the broken shoulder bone and a high ankle sprain, going 14-for-14 in the second half. The extent of the shoulder injury was discovered in the days that followed and he headed to IR.

BURNING DESIRE

Tight end David Njoku had already taken tremendous strides as a player and teammate. As crazy as it sounds, the final turning point came when he sustained serious burns to his face, arm and hands in an accident at his house.

Despite severe pain, he played two days later in the 28-3 Week 4 loss to the Ravens, catching six passes for 46 yards. After a slow start to the season, he went on a tear, setting career highs with 81 catches for 882 yards and six touchdowns.

Stefanski called him an “incredible teammate” and he was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Njoku attributed the change from a me-first to team-first attitude to when his “face got burned off.”

“I was like, No. 1, life, no matter what, is a beautiful thing,” he said. “The finer thing was just being able to see, hear, sensing everything. And then as each week went by, I started noticing I was caring more about what the team needed to win more so than what I needed to be happy. And by doing that, it also made me happy. Funny how life worked.”

THREADING THE NEEDLE

Flacco threw 204 passes in the five starts and plenty drew praise. One elicited gasps and required several replays to fully appreciate.

The Browns trailed the Bears for much of the Dec. 17 game and were down 17-10 with just over three minutes left when Flacco spotted receiver Amari Cooper running from left to right and ignored the three defenders in near proximity. The throw was perfect, Cooper snatched it, turned upfield and completed the 51-yard touchdown to tie the game.

The next week in Houston Flacco and Cooper connected 11 times for 265 yards — a franchise receiving record — and two touchdowns.

DEEP IMPACT

Hopkins nailed four winners in the final minutes, flashing the clutch gene time and again. The Browns needed a touchdown to beat the Colts but wouldn’t have been in position to win without Hopkins, who went 4-for-4 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points.

The length of the field goals made it a day to remember. Hopkins was good from 44, 54, 54 and 58 yards.

The three field goals from 50-plus tied for second in NFL history and he set a league record with a 50-plus-yarder in five straight games.

NO JOK-ING AROUND

Owusu-Koramoah is in the discussion for the team’s most improved player.

His athleticism and instincts flashed in his first two seasons, but consistency and durability were lacking. Not this season. He played all 16 games before resting in the finale, earned more playing time as the year progressed and made a series of impact plays.

He led the team with a career-high 101 tackles, including 20 for loss, and added 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and six passes defensed. It would come as no surprise if he made a game-changing play during the postseason.

THREE OF A KIND

Schwartz wouldn’t have the freedom to play five linemen and blitz the linebackers and safeties without complete trust in the cornerbacks. The Browns might have the league’s top trio in Pro Bowler Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr. and Newsome. They certainly believe they’re the best.

Ward had already been to a pair of Pro Bowls yet had his best season despite missing three games with a shoulder injury. Emerson continued to emerge in his second season and Newsome excelled in his second year moving into the slot in the nickel package.

No team has a group of receivers that scares the Browns.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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