CLEVELAND — Steve Flacco has seen his son be a first-round draft pick, then go play in three AFC Championship Games, then win a Super Bowl and be named the MVP of the game and ultimately become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

Thursday night, seated in luxury field seats at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the elder Flacco saw his son lift the former rival Browns to a playoff berth. Steve watched as Flacco gave generous time postgame to Amazon's "Thursday Night Football'' crew, and then as his son invited his own five children onto the field for photos.

Browns fans who stuck around a half-hour after watching their team beat the Jets 37-20 in Week 17 serenaded Flacco with chants, first with his surname and, later, "M-V-P." But those in the 130s sections had the emotional intelligence to quieten down as Flacco went over to his parents in the stands to share a few minutes with them on his improbable journey. And that's when his dad told him something that surprised him even a bit.

"My dad just said, 'I think it's the happiest I've ever seen you on a football field,'" Flacco told me moments later as we walked off the field together. "That's literally what he just said to me. It's definitely been a few years."

Less than two months ago, Flacco was working out at a New Jersey youth field, staying prepared for a call that may never come. As quarterback injuries piled up around the league, seemingly everyone but the 38-year-old got a call.

Flacco was 3-14 as a starter ever since Lamar Jackson took his job midway through the 2018 season. He was in some bad situations — first in Denver and then three years in the doldrums of Florham Park — but it wasn't altogether surprising that no one rostered Flacco to begin the 2023 season.

So if the Browns are being honest, they signed Flacco in late November hoping that he could keep their playoff dreams alive with a quarter of the team's salary cap on injured reserve. The formula was supposed to be simple: Hand the ball off to Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt, don't make killer mistakes in the passing game and let the entire team be led by one of the best defenses in football.

Now Flacco has thrown for 300-plus yards in four consecutive games. That's something only one other 38-plus-year-old in NFL history can say — Tom Brady. Sports always gives us improbable stories, but this…?

I asked Flacco, if I told you this right here would happen, when would it have been believable to you? When he boarded the plane for Cleveland for his workout? After his first game with the Browns, which was a loss to the Rams? When?

"Maybe two weeks [ago]," he said. "Maybe at that point you start to have some belief in this, but I don't think you look that far ahead when you get signed. You just try to go and help out if you can, if you get that opportunity. The way it's been the last few weeks has been just a whirlwind."

The 11-5 Cleveland Browns are going to the playoffs because of Flacco. Yes, general manager Andrew Berry and his staff must be commended for putting together a roster deep enough to withstand the attrition suffered this season. And yes, Kevin Stefanski may bring home his second Coach of the Year trophy in four years.

But Cleveland will be playing postseason ball because of Flacco, the former Ravens great who holds an 18-3 record against Cleveland.

Even C.J. Mosley, his former Ravens and Jets teammate, had to reflect on the moment postgame.

"Who would have thought the f---in' Browns would be screaming your name?," the old friend said to Flacco at midfield after the game.

Flacco signed a one-year prorated contract with the Browns this month after a handful of practice-squad elevations. He got an extra $75,000 for Thursday night's win, just like he will earn next week if the Browns top the Bengals. Then a quarter million for a wild-card victory on the road in two weeks, with the incentive price doubling with each win from there.

As we approached the tunnel heading back to the locker room, I asked Flacco if this has made him rethink his football mortality. Has he proven something to himself that makes him say yeah, I can still do this.

"I've known I wanted to play. So I want to continue to play until I can't play. And until people don't let me," Flacco said. "And I thought that may have been this year but obviously it hasn't been. So I've been fortunate. I'm going to keep my eye on the prize and take it week by week, but I love this."

It's impossible to imagine a 2024 NFL season without Joe Flacco on someone's roster considering we are living in the Year of the Backup. From a pure football standpoint, considering the events of the last five weeks, there's little question he should remain with the Browns. In reality, that seems unlikely.

Deshaun Watson, he of the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, will be healthy next year and take back the starting job. He looked the best he has in a Browns uniform just before a shoulder injury ended his season, but if he were to struggle early next year and Cleveland's gray-bearded hero were on the sideline, it could make for an awkward dynamic.

This postseason could be the last time Flacco wears a Browns jersey, and that'll be OK. He's already on track to be the biggest dual star in the AFC North since Paul Brown.

There was the past, and there will be the future. But Flacco is living in the now.

"Now you can just feel the excitement," he said. "I think we're starting to really, really believe in ourselves. Now you've still got to go out there and do it. We still have that focus of each week, but it is special to start getting that belief."