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Browns Secure Playoffs, May Give QB Joe Flacco and Starters Rest in Final Game Against Bengals

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns are in both the playoffs and an unusual spot: They can treat their regular-season finale like a preseason game.

With a wild-card berth already locked up, Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski indicated Monday he may rest some starters, including red-hot quarterback Joe Flacco, for Sunday’s final regular-season game at Cincinnati.

“We’re working through all those things,” he said. “We’ll have a plan. Obviously, we want to finish strong, so we’ll have a plan moving forward.”

This kind of scenario doesn’t happen often in Cleveland.

The Browns (11-5) clinched their third postseason appearance since 1999 on Thursday night with a win over the New York Jets. They went into the weekend with a remote chance of winning the AFC North, but those hopes ended when the Baltimore Ravens blasted Miami 56-19.

That makes this week’s game against the Bengals (8-8) meaningless, and Stefanski will consider having players rest and avoid injuries as the No. 5 seed Browns prepare for a wild card-round game against the AFC South champion — Jacksonville, Indianapolis or Houston — on Jan. 13, 14 or 15.

Stefanski stressed nothing has been finalized and he’s weighing all options. He’s sensitive about his team staying on a roll.

A win at Cincinnati would give the Browns 12 regular-season wins for just the second time in franchise history. They went 12-4 in 1986.

Stefanski plans to consult with general manager Andrew Berry and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, but ultimately it will be his call on who plays and who doesn’t.

“Every decision you make, you’re just trying to make what is in the best interest of your football team, whether you play your guys, rest,” he said. “You can’t rest everybody. There’s roster limitations to that, so we took care of business last week, but we have to finish strong. That’s our mentality. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

While it’s only the Browns’ second trip to the playoffs since 2002, both have come under Stefanski, who could win his second AP NFL Coach of the Year Award after navigating a team that went 7-10 a year ago through an injury-riddled season.

Of course, things changed with the arrival of Flacco, who has led the Browns to four straight wins and thrown for 1,616 yards in five starts since he was signed on Nov. 20.

If Flacco sits against the Bengals, the Browns could go with P.J. Walker, who has made two starts, or veteran Jeff Driskel, signed off Arizona’s practice squad on Friday.

Stefanski will likely factor Flacco’s preference into his decision.

“The decision I’ll make is for what’s best for every position, everybody on the team,” he said. “But Joe’s certainly a veteran that does a great job in the meeting room, does a great job on game day of letting you know what he’s seeing.

“It’s really important that you listen to your guys, both in this building, when you’re working and you’re in meetings and when you’re out there in the practice field, it’s important to listen to them on game day as well.”

While there’s benefit in getting players rested, there’s a balance in getting them ready.

As has been the case all season, the Browns were mimicking Stefanski’s “go 1-0” mantra.

“This week, the focus is on the Cincinnati Bengals,” linebacker Sione Takitaki said. “They’re going to keep score. We want to go out there and get that win, and we’re excited for that.”

NOTES: Stefanski said WR Elijah Moore, who was hospitalized overnight with a concussion sustained in the win over the Jets, “continues to make progress.” Also, WR Amari Cooper is “feeling better” after missing the playoff clincher with a heel injury.

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

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