By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Joe Flacco stepped behind center for his first NFL game since January and immediately led the Browns on a long scoring drive, capped by a 24-yard touchdown pass that set off a celebration on Cleveland’s sideline.
Sure, Cleveland’s 36-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday rarely went that smoothly again for the Browns (7-4).
Yet the 38-year-old Flacco seemed to leave the Browns confident that the quarterback position is no longer their biggest area of weakness while they attempt to rebound this week from their first losing streak of the season.
“I think Joe showed he can still play some football,” Cleveland left guard Joel Bitonio said. “I guess if you play 15 years, you don’t really get rattled.”
Flacco began his 16th season in the NFL on Sunday, and the former Super Bowl MVP performed remarkably well, considering he only joined Cleveland’s practice squad two weeks ago and officially got this starting assignment Friday.
Flacco went 23 of 44 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, throwing his only interception midway through the fourth quarter while Cleveland attempted to rally from a one-point deficit.
After passing for over 42,000 yards in his career and leading several storied Baltimore Ravens teams, Flacco spent the past four seasons with decidedly less-talented clubs. The veteran was grateful for another chance to play meaningful games with gifted teammates.
“It’s one of the more talented teams I’ve been on in a while, and you can tell that right away,” Flacco said. “It’s not easy when you take these long road trips and come up empty-handed … but hopefully when we get back in there during the week, we can go back out and have more good practices and eventually put this thing behind us.”
Beyond the mere numbers, Flacco made a series of tough throws throughout the day against Los Angeles’ solid defense despite his unfamiliarity with the Browns’ offense or his receivers.
That supporting cast got even smaller when No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper was sidelined by a concussion in the second half, but Cleveland still mounted four drives longer than 50 yards, including three straight surrounding halftime.
“(Flacco) did some really good things today, put us in position,” Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We’ve got to come away — we as the offense — with points in those situations.”
Flacco’s sole interception was his biggest regret, since it came with the Browns trailing 20-19 in the fourth quarter after they had driven for an apparent tying touchdown — only for Dustin Hopkins to miss the extra point.
Flacco got plenty of protection in the pocket on Cleveland’s first snap after its defense had forced a punt. But the Rams had his receivers covered downfield, and he forced a throw that was poached by Los Angeles safety John Johnson.
“It ultimately was just a bad decision,” Flacco said. “I was late throwing that pass. Really wanted to get set, and they just matched everything up, and I had time in the pocket, but just lost track of the safety floating back there.”
Flacco got the start over inconsistent backup P.J. Walker because rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson is out with a concussion, joining the high-priced Deshaun Watson on the shelf.
Cooper then joined Watson, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward on the Browns’ long list of prominent injured players — but the Browns aren’t expecting sympathy.
“Of course it’s tough not having star players,” said Myles Garrett, who has gone back-to-back games without a sack for the first time since early last season. “No one asked for the situation that we’re in, but we’re in it. Can’t complain. Can’t moan about it. Just got to go out there and put in the work, find a way to win.”
Stefanski installed a game plan to minimize the impact of Flacco’s unfamiliarity with the offense, and it resulted in 327 yards of offense.
“I thought they did a really good job,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “We tried to be able to analyze some of the different things that Kevin and those guys have done. You knew that they were going to be committed to running the ball. They’ve mixed up personnel groupings as well.”
While Stefanski refused to say whether he thought Flacco would be his starter going forward, the veteran passer and his new teammates all seemed eager to have his experience behind center when the Browns host Jacksonville on Sunday to begin the five-game sprint to the postseason.
“Anytime you get a little taste of playing football, you want to keep that going for as long as possible,” Flacco said.
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