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Around the AFC North: Joe Flacco-Amari Cooper Connection Has Browns on Verge of Postseason 

Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco (15) motions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Houston.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco (15) motions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Houston.

Cleveland Browns: Amari Cooper Digs Catching the Long Ball From Joe Flacco 

Joe Flacco loves throwing the long ball and Amari Cooper loves catching it. 

The veteran quarterback and receiver have formed an explosive connection for the Browns (10-5), who have won three straight and are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot after a 36-22 victory over the Texans.  

For the first time in his career, the 38-year-old Flacco has thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games.

During his 368-yard, three touchdown performance against Houston, Flacco's favorite target was Cooper, who joined Terrell Owens as the only receivers in NFL history to have 200-yard games with three different franchises.

From the moment Flacco became the Browns' starter in Week 13, Cooper has felt connected with his quarterback. Flacco hit Cooper with a 53-yard strike on the first play from scrimmage against Houston, followed by a 75-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. 

"Man, I've only been receiving passes from Joe for a short period of time, but one thing I learned quickly is he has amazing arm strength," Cooper via Stacey Dales of NFL Network. "Joe throws a beautiful ball, easy to catch. He's a very cerebral quarterback, honestly he just has a good feel for the game, and us together, it's like we're in rhythm. Yeah, I plan to keep having these types of games with Joe."

With two games to play, the Browns are a victory away from clinching a playoff spot and have a 99% chance of making the postseason, according to the New York Times playoff simulator.

The Browns visit the Jets (6-9) on "Thursday Night Football."

Pittsburgh Steelers: Mason Rudolph Will Get Another Start If Kenny Pickett Can't Go

In Mason Rudolph's first start of the season at quarterback Saturday, the Steelers scored 34 points against Cincinnati, the most they have scored since 2021. That made it no surprise Tuesday when Head Coach Mike Tomlin announced that Rudolph would begin this week taking the starting reps again, with Kenny Pickett still recovering from an ankle injury.

"We're in the same position with Kenny as we were last week," Tomlin said Tuesday via Brooke Pryor of "We'll give him a few reps and see where that leads us. ... Obviously we have a great deal more comfort because of what we've seen in-stadium for Mason Rudolph and that helps us."

Rudolph threw for 290 yards in Pittsburgh's 34-11 victory, and the big-play element returned to the offense. George Pickett caught a 66-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph on third-and-1 as the Steelers attacked downfield with success.

At (8-7), the Steelers have just a 13% chance of making the playoffs, according to the New York Times simulator, as they prepare for their Week 17 game at Seattle. Until he sees Pickett in practice this week, Tomlin did not want to speculate on the second-year quarterback's possible availability against the Seahawks.

"We'll see what the performance looks like tomorrow," Tomlin said of Pickett. "Mason Rudolph has the ball as we stand here today."

Cincinnati Bengals: Being Winless in the AFC North Has Been Costly 

The Bengals (8-7) are the two-time defending AFC North champs, but they've been eliminated from the division race and could be eliminated from playoff contention if they lose to the Chiefs in Week 17.  

Cincinnati is 0-5 against its division rivals this season, after being swept by the Ravens and Steelers and losing its season opener against the Browns. Cornerback Mike Hilton said the Bengals have failed against their divisional foes because they have lost the battles in the trenches and have made too many mistakes. 

"Physicality and turnovers," Hilton said via Geoff Hobson of the Bengals website. "You do those two things, you definitely win the division. I would say we just haven't played up to our standards, especially in our own division." 

Defensive end Sam Hubbard said the Bengals' divisional opponents made beating Cincinnati an even higher priority this season. 

"Being the winner the last two years, obviously we've had a target on our back," Hubbard said.

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