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Browns’ Playoff Hopes Dashed by Joe Flacco’s Two Pick-6’s in Loss to Texans

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HOUSTON (AP) — From the couch to the playoffs, Joe Flacco had an incredible run with the Cleveland Browns.

But his stretch of success came to a sudden end on Saturday, when the Browns lost 45-14 to the Houston Texans in a wild-card playoff matchup.

Flacco had interceptions returned for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the third quarter to turn a close game into a laugher and send the team home with its worst playoff loss since a 34-0 defeat to the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 29, 1968.

“It’s definitely a shame the way it went down and hard to deal with at the moment,” Flacco said.

C.J. Stroud and the Texans built a 24-14 lead before halftime. Houston’s defense took over after that, with a pick-6 by Steven Nelson and another by Christian Harris that made it 38-14.

“That’s killer giving up points like that,” coach Kevin Stefanski said.

Flacco, who will turn 39 on Tuesday, was signed to Cleveland’s practice squad in November after Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. He went 4-1 as a starter and led the Browns (11-7) to just their third playoff appearance since their 1999 expansion rebirth, but second in four seasons under Stefanski.

Playing in his 17th postseason game but first in nine years, the former Super Bowl MVP — who came in tied with Tom Brady for the most road playoff victories by a QB with seven — couldn’t continue his run.

“I was so fortunate to become a part of this team,” Flacco said. “It’s a special group. I know a lot of people can say that, but it really is. To be given a chance to do this with those guys, I’m super grateful for it.”

He finished with 307 yards and had a touchdown pass in the first half, but his mistakes under pressure in the third quarter were too much for the Browns to overcome on a day when Stroud easily outshined him in his playoff debut. In addition to the two picks, Flacco was sacked four times.

Watson was under center for the Texans during their last playoff run in 2019 but played just six games for the Browns this season. He was on the sideline Saturday for just the second time since his surgery, watching the man who replaced him as Houston’s franchise quarterback.

Flacco became one of the best comeback stories of the year in helping the Browns to the postseason. Although he won a Super Bowl with Baltimore and plenty of other big playoff games, he’s also no stranger to the pain of an early postseason exit.

“It’s always difficult when you get this time of the year. … Usually, the further you go, the more heartbreak there is,” he said. “At least from my experience. It’s a lot of fun along the way, but if you do get beat, it’s hard to deal with.”

Stefanski refused to blame Flacco’s mistakes for the loss.

“We just didn’t play well enough in any phase,” he said. “We didn’t play well enough. We didn’t coach well enough.”

Flacco was asked if he’d like to return to the Browns next season. Some fans have clamored for Cleveland to bring him back, given that he’s been more effective at running Stefanski’s offense than Watson has been.

“I love it here, (but) we’re dealing with so much going through the emotions of this game,” Flacco said. “Being so excited to be in this position and coming up empty, so that’s where my head is. Just trying to soak it all in and let this digest.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

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