When the NFL released its 2023 season schedule back in May with a Thursday night Jets-Browns contest kicking off Week 17, many people envisioned Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson leading their teams into a Dec. 28 battle that would have playoff implications for both clubs. But nothing is promised and in one of the most unlikely QB matchups in recent history, Trevor Siemian will start for the 6-9 Jets and the 10-5 Browns will counter with Joe Flacco.
Siemian, who celebrated his 32nd birthday Tuesday, became the fourth Jets QB to start this season and he went home a victor Sunday when Greg Zeurlein nailed a 54-yard field goal to give the Jets a 30-28 triumph over the Washington Commanders. Flacco, set to turn 39 on Jan. 16, became the Browns fourth QB to start a few weeks ago and he's guided Cleveland to a 3-1 mark.
Loved Playing with Him
Joe Flacco has history with the Jets and he was on the winning side of one of the franchise's most improbable outcomes that came at the hands of the Browns. Trailing 30-17 to the Browns on Sep. 18, 2022, Flacco helped the Jets overcome a 13-point deficit in the final 1:55 for a miraculous 31-30 win in Cleveland. With Cool Joe throwing for 307 yards and 4 TDs, the Jets went out and did what was virtually impossible. Prior to that furious rally, teams that had trailed by 13 of more points in the final two minutes from Week 9 of 2001 through opening week of 2022 had no wins and 2,229 losses.
"I loved playing with him," said Jets WR Garrett Wilson, who, as a rookie, was Flacco's favorite target that day with 8 catches for 102 yards and 2 TDs. "He's a great player, he's seen it all. He's a Super Bowl champion and you can tell, the confidence that he has in himself and the way he goes out and backs it up. He's a fun guy to play with and one of those dudes that last year I tried to latch on and build a relationship with."
Despite being plagued by quarterback instability and offensive line issues, Wilson has been sensational in his sophomore pro campaign and needs 42 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time and 12 catches over the final two games to amass 100 receptions. The Jets have two legitimate young stars on offense in Wilson and RB Breece Hall, a dual threat whose 65 receptions are second in the league among RBs and his 537 receiving yards are tied for first (Chrisitan McCaffrey). While the focus in the short-term must be the Browns and statistically the best defense in the NFL, the long-term vision is Wilson and Hall taking the ball from Aaron Rodgers, who was lost four plays into a season that began with great anticipation.
"It's been a grind," HC Robert Saleh said this week. "Everybody has closed her eyes, closes their eyes and imagined success right away. We knew there was going to be a process. Obviously, we all felt great, coming into this year with all the expectations and hype that's around the football team and it was awesome. It hasn't gone the way we wanted, obviously, but it doesn't mean that the goal of winning championships is over."
Trevor Siemian, a journeyman QB whose 2019 season was ended on a late hit from Myles Garrett in a Jets' 23-3 loss to the Browns, will transition from lining up against the 32nd-ranked Washington defense to the league's top statistical outfit in the Browns. Garrett is still wreaking havoc and leads the way with 13 sacks, Za'Darius Smith has pitched in 5.5 QB takedowns, LB Jeremiah Oswusu-Koromoah (87 tackles, 18 TFL, 3.5 sacks) is a rare talent and the Browns are tied for No. 2 in the NFL with 25 takeaways. It's a most difficult assignment, but the Jets have two offensive pieces that can help Siemian put points on the board in Wilson and Hall.
"You watch them play and you're like "man, how did that happen?" or "how did you do that?" Special," Siemian said.
Hall has amassed 1,195 yards from scrimmage and his 4.2 yards per carry is significant considering Rodgers' absence plus an injury plagued offensive line that has started 12 different combinations. The Browns will try to limit his space and then Jim Schwartz can get creative with a third-down defense that is atop the NFL (28.7%).
"There's going to be a lack of space, that's for darn sure," Robert Saleh said of Hall's terrain. "But it's going to be gritty, it's going to be grimy, it's just having the same mentality that he's taken over the last few weeks of finding every yard he can and guys being efficient, communicating and being violent."
Starting to Hit Stride
While the Jets do have a "soft spot" for Joe Flacco, they field a violent defensive unit themselves and they will be up for the challenge ahead. Flacco has thrown for 300-plus yards during the Browns three-game win streak, but the Jets have not allowed a 300-yard passer in 33 games and own the NFL's No. 2-ranked pass defense. Jets CB Sauce Gardner recalled facing Flacco in practice last season.
"He made some plays on me, I made some plays on him," Gardner said. "I caught some picks last year against him. Like I said, he made some plays against me as well. I'm looking forward to it. He's a great player, an even greater guy."
Gardner, the Jets second-year cornerback typically stationed on the left side, could travel at times to match up with Browns top target Amari Cooper (72-1,250-17.4-5TD). Tight end David Njoku (75-748-10.06TD) and former Jets wideout Elijah Moore (54-579-10.7-1TD) highlight a balanced attack around Flacco, the veteran who made 9 starts for the Jets in 2020-22.
"We always joke around — make the quarterback a hero and Amari is playing some great football, great football," Saleh said. "The run game, the O-line, the defense is getting him the ball. With each passing week, he is getting more and more confident, the team is getting more and more confident and they're starting to hit stride at the perfect time. So, they are galvanizing around it and you can see it on tape."
After a short week, the Jets have a tall challenge and a chance to play spoiler against an old friend.