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Kevin Stefanski won't divulge plans about resting Browns starters in season finale

Jan. 1—It is a question NFL coaches have been asked for decades, but one that rarely pertains to the Browns:

Should Kevin Stefanski rest his starters for the regular season finale Jan. 7 in Cincinnati, or should he play them for at least part of the game so they don't get rusty with the playoffs set to start the second weekend of January? The Browns are 11-5 and locked into the fifth seed in the AFC, which means the result of their game with the Bengals would not affect their playoff position. The Bengals have been eliminated from playoff contention.

Stefanski during a Zoom call Jan. 1 was asked about his plans. Naturally, he was as elusive as Amari Cooper running a pass route when he answered.

"We're working through all those things," Stefanski said. "We'll have a plan. Obviously, like I mentioned to you guys before, we want to finish strong, so we'll have a plan moving forward, but I'll update you guys as we get going through the week."

This is the third time since 1999 that the Browns qualified for the playoffs. They had to beat the Falcons (24-16) in the final game of 2002 to finish 9-7 and get in as a wild-card team Likewise, they had to win their 2020 finale (they beat the Steelers, 24-22) to qualify as a wildcard team at 11-5.

The Browns are a wild-card team and will play the winner of the AFC South. The Jaguars, Colts and Texans are all 9-7, but Jacksonville is in first place because the Jags have the tiebreaker edge over Indianapolis and Houston.

Kevin Stefanski isn't ready to announce whether he will rest #Browns starters in Cincinnati on Sunday with the playoffs starting Jan. 13 or 14. pic.twitter.com/SjGjrc7fpj

— Jeff Schudel (@jsproinsider) January 1, 2024

The Jaguars finish the regular season with a road game against the 5-11 Tennessee Titans. The Texans and Colts meet in Indianapolis. If Tennessee beats the Jaguars, the Browns would play the winner of the Texans-Colts game at either Houston or Indianapolis.

Playing starters in an unimportant game on the last day of the regular season runs the obvious risk of losing a key player or players to injury. If Stefanski starts Joe Flacco and Flacco is injured, Stefanski will be second-guessed for the remainder of his time as Browns head coach.

If Stefanski plays his starters, most likely it would be for only a quarter or so. The Dolphins were blown out by the Ravens, 56-19, on Dec. 31. Starting outside linebacker Bradley Chubb was still in the game in the final minutes and ended up with a torn ACL in a non-contact injury.

"I think every decision you make, you're just trying to do what is in the best interest of your football team, whether you play your guys or rest your guys," Stefanski said, "You can't rest everybody. There are 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."

Jerome Ford has carried the ball 201 times this season after getting eight carries last year. Maybe he could use a day off, but he isn't campaigning for one.

"AFC opponent in our division, looking to go 1-0," Ford said. "So I'm ready to come up, step up, do what I have to do to get the win if my number's called."

Flacco is riding a four-game winning streak, but the game in Cincinnati could be an ideal time to let Jeff Driskel get some action. The Browns signed the veteran quarterback off the Cardinals' practice squad on Dec. 29.

"Working through all those things," Stefanski said. "You know, a guy that we felt good about bringing in. AVP (Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt), has been with him before when he was in Arizona. So, there's a lot of carryover from what we do and what they do in terms of terminology. So with Dorian's (Thompson-Robinson) injury (hip), getting a guy in here that we felt good about, but we'll see on all that."

Driskel has appeared in 23 career games with 11 starts with the Bengals (2018), Lions (2019), Broncos (2020) and Texans (2021-22). He has completed 216 of 365 career passes for 2,228 yards with 14 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He is 1-9 as a starter.

BROWNS AT BENGALS

When: 1 p.m., Jan. 7

Where: Paycor Stadium, Cincinnati

Records: Bengals 8-8, Browns 11-5

TV: WOIO; Radio: WKRK-FM 92.3, WNCX-FM 98.5, WKNR-AM 850