CLEVELAND — Bedlam had broken out in the bowels of First Energy Stadium shortly after 4 p.m. on Sunday — specifically outside the visitors’ locker room, where Jets owners Woody and Chris Johnson stood and greeted every single one of their players as they trotted off the field and into the room.
The Jets haven’t experienced many (any?) euphoric moments like this for the past decade, so this was to be cherished with unbridled — and well-deserved — joy.
Joe Flacco, 37 years young and long having transitioned from NFL starter and Super Bowl-winning quarterback to veteran insurance backup, was one of the last players to arrive from the field — where the Jets had stunned the Browns 31-30 with two touchdowns in the final 1:22 — to the locker room.
As Flacco approached the double doors to the locker room and met eyes with Woody Johnson and head coach Robert Saleh, he let out a guttural scream that was so loud it could probably be heard from Baltimore to Denver to New Jersey.
“HELL YEAH!’’ the usually low-key quarterback who goes by the nickname “Cool Joe’’ from his teammates bellowed.
“Winning in the NFL is like a drug,’’ Flacco told The Post about 30 minutes after that mad moment amid the buzz of elation inside the locker room. “Not that I have experience with drugs, but it is addicting. It’s a powerful thing. This is my seventh start for the Jets and my first win. See that ball right there? I kept it.’’
Flacco pointed to the game ball that was tucked away in his locker. After his final kneel down to bleed the clock to double zeroes and secure the most improbably Jets victory in memory, Flacco wasn’t handing that ball to a referee or anyone else.
“I took that last knee and I was going to keep that ball,’’ he said. “It means a lot. This team’s been through a lot and I feel like I’ve been here for a good amount of it, and it feels good.’’
Flacco said he didn’t remember who his last win as a starting quarterback came against, “just that it was in Denver.’’
For those of you scoring at home, that was Oct. 13, 2019, a 16-0 win over the Titans in Denver, where Flacco completed a modest 18 of 28 for 177 yards with no TD passes and one interception.
Flacco lost his next eight starts after that win, including all six as a Jet before Sunday. He was 2-12 as a starter dating back to 2019 and 6-17 dating back to 2018, his final season in Baltimore.
Now Flacco is 1-0 and hoping to be on a different kind of streak with the Jets, who are 1-1 and suddenly brimming with hope, largely thanks to his steadying influence.
Last Monday, the day after the Jets lost their season opener to the Ravens with the offense looked putrid, Saleh left open the possibility — albeit briefly — that a quarterback change was not out of the question.
Jets fans were calling loudly for third-stringer Mike White, last season’s darling for a couple of weeks after starter Zach Wilson was injured, to take over.
Saleh quickly quelled that two days later, insisting Flacco was his quarterback until Wilson is sufficiently recovered from his knee injury.
But let’s not be naïve here. Flacco entered Sunday’s game in Cleveland on notice, his leash having been shortened from Week 1 to Week 2.
You’d have never known that, though, the way Flacco calmly answered a 90-yard Cleveland scoring drive that ate 8:37 off the clock for a 7-0 first-quarter lead, tying it at 7-7 with a gorgeous 2-yard fade-route TD pass to rookie receiver Garrett Wilson.
You wouldn’t have known it when, unflustered by losing the ball on a Jadeveon Clowney strip-sack on the previous possession, Flacco tied the game at 14-14 with 11 seconds remaining in the first half on a 10-yard scoring pass to rookie running back Breece Hall.
You wouldn’t have known it when, in the frenetic final moments of the game, Flacco was finding a wide-open Corey Davis on a Browns busted coverage for a 66-yard TD pass that cut the Cleveland lead to 30-24 with 1:22 remaining.
“It was a really weird feeling, because of how quiet it got in [the stadium],’’ Flacco said of the Davis touchdown. “That feeling was something I have never felt before, how quiet it got out there.’’
Finally, after the Jets recovered an onside kick, there was Flacco — methodically and with zero sense of panic — calmly moving the offense down the field toward the game-winning 15-yard scoring strike to Wilson with 22 seconds remaining.
When his day was done, Flacco quietly exited the locker room through those same doors where he’d celebrated with Woody Johnson and Saleh about an hour earlier, the game ball tucked under his arm and ready to start next Sunday’s home game against the Super Bowl runner-up Bengals with no questions about his job security lingering.
Until further notice (read: whenever Zach Wilson is cleared to return), this is Flacco’s team and he’s cherishing every single moment of it for as long as it lasts.
This content was originally published here.