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Are Joe Flacco-led Cleveland Browns for real? Is Justin Fields still in Chicago Bears' long-term plans?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he examines two fascinating quarterback storylines in one game on the Sunday slate ...

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, with the position carrying outsized importance in deciding which teams make -- and advance deep into -- the postseason.

Week 15 features some enticing QB clashes, including Dak Prescott vs. Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson vs. Trevor Lawrence. While those matchups deserve marquee billing, the most interesting quarterback battle from a team-building perspective is being overlooked: Justin Fields vs. Joe Flacco.

That's right. Sunday's Bears-Browns game features a pair quarterbacks at opposite ends of the career spectrum -- two guys currently spawning a couple of fascinating questions:

  1. Is Fields the future in Chicago?
  2. Can Flacco bolster the present in Cleveland?

Frankly, at this moment, those are two of the most intriguing topics in the entire league -- and they just so happen to be colliding this week at Cleveland Browns Stadium. So it's a perfect time to drill down on both subjects. Let's begin with the elder statesman ...

Joe Flacco-led Browns: True contenders?

Despite an underwhelming, injury-riddled season from Deshaun Watson that officially ended with shoulder surgery last month, Cleveland admirably finds itself squarely in the playoff picture, currently holding the AFC's top wild-card spot. If the Browns (8-5) can successfully defend their home turf against the Bears (5-8) on Sunday, they will be in prime position to punch a postseason ticket.

The most surprising aspect of this story, of course, is the old Cleveland nemesis who finds himself right in the middle of it. Joe Flacco, who routinely tormented the Browns as the Ravens' longtime starter, is now The Man in The Land. Flacco, who's a month away from his 39th birthday, was on the couch just a few weeks ago when the Browns signed him to the practice squad to upgrade the talent and depth at the position.

On Thursday, after playing surprisingly well in a pair of starts, Flacco signed a one-year, $4.05 million contract (loaded with incentives) that solidifies his spot as the team's temporary QB1, while creating buzz around a Cleveland team that absolutely feels dangerous in a single-elimination format.

Though some might be surprised seeing me express that kind of optimism for a team playing with a backup quarterback, I witnessed the veteran working his magic last week live and in person. As an analyst for the Jaguars, I saw Flacco guide Cleveland past Jacksonville, 31-27. And in the aftermath, I believe in the Browns with Flacco at the helm. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP is a fine fit in Kevin Stefanski's stretch-bootleg, play-action scheme, having already enjoyed a successful stint in Baltimore under the coach's mentor, Gary Kubiak.

Look beyond Flacco's raw numbers in Cleveland -- 55.1 percent completion rate, 6.3 yards per attempt, 5:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- and you can see that Flacco has steadied an offense that sputtered through most of this season, with or without Watson under center. The veteran's experience, timing, rhythm and diagnostic skills enable Stefanski to get to the back pages of the playbook, resulting in a more aggressive approach from the crafty coach.

Moreover, Flacco is an upgrade over rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson and journeyman PJ Walker for a team making a playoff push. From the uptick in deep balls to the improved overall efficiency of the offense on the ground and through the air due to Flacco's superb management skills at the line, the Browns' attack is clicking better than it has all season with the veteran in charge.

As the Browns attempt to build a lineup with the capacity to knock off the heavyweights in the AFC, Flacco understands the importance of playing within the limits of a complementary game plan designed to accentuate Cleveland's No. 1 defense.

Remember, Flacco guided the Ravens on an improbable run to the Lombardi Trophy 11 years ago, and his experience and expertise will help the Browns navigate the pressure that arises down the stretch and -- most likely -- in the postseason. The veteran's success as a playoff starter (10-5) bodes well for a team potentially embarking on a title chase with a mix of newbies and veterans who possess limited postseason experience.

Given the lack of a dominant team in the AFC, I truly believe the stars are aligned for the Browns to make a surprising playoff run behind a veteran quarterback with a wealth of big-stage experience.

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Is Justin Fields the future in Chicago?

The Bears entered this week with a pair of top-five picks (their own and Carolina's, courtesy of last year's pre-draft trade that resulted in the Panthers drafting Bryce Young No. 1 overall) in the 2024 NFL Draft. With that as the backdrop, there has been plenty of speculation that Fields could be on borrowed time in Chicago, with everyone hyping the potential of the 2024 quarterback class.

In fact, I discussed that exact possibility in this space in late September. At the time, I was down on Fields. The third-year pro struggled as the centerpiece of a Bears offense sputtering under his direction. Given my love for the Ohio State product and his potential as a dual-threat playmaker prior to the 2021 draft, my disappointment in his play led me to question his ability to develop into the elite quarterback that I envisioned when I watched him shine with the Buckeyes.

Fast-forward to the present, and the Bears have won their past two games, with the offense scoring on six possessions in last week's 28-13 upset of the division-rival Lions. The ultra-talented playmaker has seemingly turned a corner since coming back from injury in Week 11. Although the Bears lost in his return to the lineup -- blowing a 12-point lead to Detroit in the game's final four minutes -- Fields finished with 273 yards of total offense, including 108 rush yards on 18 carries. The dynamic, efficient individual performance showcased his skills as a run/pass threat, revitalizing talk about his potential as the Bears' long-term answer.

Given the recent buzz around Fields' play, I dug back into the tape. And yes, I think the gifted signal-caller is indeed making this looming decision harder on the Bears' front office. While the draft-centric team builder in me believes the opportunity to reset the quarterback clock with a talented prospect on a cheap rookie deal is sensible, retaining Fields and significantly upgrading the rest of the roster with a handful of blue-chip prospects could keep the momentum going.

I know opting to bypass an elite QB prospect in favor of a talented-but-inconsistent 24-year-old with a fifth-year-option decision on the horizon might not be the most popular opinion, but nobody enjoys diving back into a rebuild. I also know some folks have Matt Eberflus on the hot seat, but he hasn't even completed his second season in the big chair. And this franchise has a history of patience. Still, if the organization stands pat, Eberflus will be under serious pressure to win in 2024. And in that scenario, I can't imagine he wants to completely rework Chicago's offense with a rookie quarterback under center. Very few first-year passers thrive while undergoing on-the-job training. Not to mention, constant turnover at the most important position on the field disrupts a team's chemistry and stunts the growth of everyone.

All that said, Fields needs to finish the regular season with an impressive series of performances that show his growth as a game manager and consistent playmaker. And after this week's stiff test against Cleveland's stifling defense, the schedule lightens up for the former No. 11 overall pick:

Going forward, Fields must reduce the negative plays (sacks taken, interceptions and fumbles) and display situational awareness to help the Bears win consistently. From managing risk based on time, score and situation to securing the ball on the run, Fields can show improvement in a number of areas that will help the offense better complement a defense that attacks the ball under Eberflus' direction.

If Fields does indeed make strides, the comparison between the current Bears quarterback and the top QB prospects in the 2024 class can tilt in his favor, given the draft currency Chicago could allot to his supporting cast. Whether adding more trench warriors to beef up the offensive line or upgrading the pass-catching group with a potent playmaker or two, the Bears could go a number of routes to help Fields make the leap.

While some have discussed the potential albatross of picking up Fields' fifth-year option and eventually inking the young quarterback to an extension, there is no guarantee that any quarterback in the 2024 class will develop into star. Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Kenny Pickett all received buzz as top-20 picks in the 2021 and '22 drafts, but they've yet to provide many positive returns. Fields, on the other hand, has flashed take-over-the-game potential at various points. He just needs to iron out the inconsistency.

Like many others at the beginning of this season, I was in a rush to dismiss Fields as the answer. But as the season has played out, and Eberflus' Bears have begun to form the makings of a viable squad on both sides of the ball, I'm changing my tune. In fact, if Chicago closes out the season on a positive note, I think there's a strong argument to be made that the Bears should re-commit to Fields by picking up the fifth-year option and continuing to build up the team around this rare athlete.

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