NFL

Browns in the Playoffs: Will Cleveland Top The Texans?

The Browns are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Will their improbable season continue after Saturday?

January 10, 2024

Dawg Days is a weekly feature by Chris McNeil on the Cleveland Browns. The Three Deep section tackles facets of the Browns’ upcoming game from all sides — advantages, disadvantages, and a final view on the contest.

Once the ink dried on the paperwork in March 2022 formalizing the trade of Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for Browns first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, along with a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick, you just knew the fortunes of these two organizations would somehow be intertwined for years to come — even if in unexpected ways.

Due to his shoulder injury, Watson will, of course, not be playing Saturday in the Wild Card matchup between the Browns and the Texans, but the decisions surrounding Watson made by both organizations loom large over this game.

Contrary to what some believe, the Houston Texans did not take Ohio State standout QB CJ Stroud with one of the picks acquired in the Watson haul. But nonetheless, the former Buckeye’s presence adds another layer of intrigue to an already juicy matchup this Saturday. He was notably absent when the Browns beat the Texans earlier this season on Christmas Eve as he was dealing with a concussion.

In that game, his replacement — former Cleveland Browns QB Case Keenum — could only muster 62 yards through the air before being pulled in favor of Davis Mills. The Browns won that contest in Houston by a final score of 36-22.

I expect this game to look a lot different with CJ Stroud back at the helm and the Texans looking to make some noise in front of their home fans on Saturday.

This week the Browns are currently 2.5-point favorites on Tipico Sportsbook (-2.5) on the road against the Houston Texans. The game kicks off at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

Strong Side

The Texans took a much different path to get to this playoff game than the Browns, needing to win in Indianapolis last week to get into the postseason. A loss by the Jaguars the following day then gave the Texans the AFC South title.

The Browns, by contrast, had the 5 seed all wrapped up and elected to play mostly reserves in a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.

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In that de facto playoff game for the Texans against the Colts, a few things became apparent.

The first is that the Texans struggled running the ball. Like the game against the Browns earlier in the season, RB Devin Singletary could not get it going. Against the Browns he ran for a paltry 44 yards and in this win-or-go-home matchup against the Colts he could only muster 63 yards on the ground.

The Browns have been unable to consistently run the ball with all the injuries on the offensive line in the back half of the season, but the Texans defense may give Jerome Ford and company an opportunity to get the ground game moving.

For as good as the Browns defense has been, they have been exposed at times by teams that can run. They rank near the middle of the league in YPC and total yards. Houston cannot seem to muster much of a running game, however, which will make it difficult for the Texans to control the clock and the game on offense.

The second important point is that the Texans’ defense was susceptible to the run. The Colts, with Gardner Minshew at the helm, could not move the ball through the air as he went 13-24 for only 141 yards. By contrast, Jonathan Taylor ran the ball for 188 yards against the Texans by himself.

The Browns have been unable to consistently run the ball with all the injuries on the offensive line in the back half of the season, but the Texans defense may give Jerome Ford and company an opportunity to get the ground game moving.

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Weak Side

This brings us back to that Buckeye CJ Stroud.

Stroud’s rookie numbers are off the charts this season. He went 319-499 for 4108 yards and 23 touchdowns, with only five interceptions this season. Those are great stats for any quarterback, let alone a rookie in this league.

The Browns strength on defense has been against the pass — yielding the second fewest yards in the league through the air, utilizing predominately man coverage coupled with pressuring the quarterback. This week they will have a test in stopping WR Nico Collins, who went off against the Colts last week for 195 yards on only nine receptions.

The positive for the Browns is that due to an injury back in early December to Tank Dell, the Texans are limited in their options for Stroud. Watch for the Texans’ offense to once again test the Browns secondary on Saturday with Collins, while mixing in TE Dalton Schultz as they did against the Colts.

Stroud spoke about being prepared for his first NFL playoff appearance due to playing in front of 108,000 fans at The Shoe in Columbus.

I expect Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to bring pressure — led by Myles Garrett — to make Stroud uncomfortable all day in an attempt to cause a rare mistake by the young signal caller. Stroud spoke about being prepared for his first NFL playoff appearance due to playing in front of 108,000 fans at The Shoe in Columbus. This will be another test of his mettle and the Browns must get after Stroud before he gets in rhythm.

One other thing to watch for in this game is the Browns kicking game. We had talked about these two franchises’ fortunes being intertwined and we see it again with Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins. He pulled his left hamstring against the Texans attempting to tackle returner Dameon Pierce back in week 16, and he has been unable to return to the field since then. He is unlikely to kick on Saturday.

This leaves K Riley Patterson to perform the kicking duties. Patterson made his only FG attempt in 2 games against the Jets from 33 yards and has gone 6 of 7 on extra point attempts in those two games.

The Cade York experience is still fresh in Browns fans’ minds and the fanbase is well versed in how a poor kicking game can sabotage an otherwise great team. Hopefully, Patterson can provide a steady leg on Saturday.

Corner

Cleveland is at fever pitch right now as Browns quarterback Joe Flacco has captured the imagination of the whole town.

The Joe Flacco meme game has never been stronger. T-shirt companies all around northeast Ohio are working overtime to put out as many “Wacco for Flacco,” “Flacco for President” and “Joe Flacco Fan Since ‘23” shirts out as possible.

“Something’s going to happen over the next 5 weeks that we’re going to remember forever.”

The grizzled vet also happens to be 5-0 in Wild Card weekend matchups.

His quote this week: “Something’s going to happen over the next 5 weeks that we’re going to remember forever.”

That something starts Saturday.

Prediction: Browns 31-24

Chris McNeil
Chris McNeil is the brains behind the infamous Cleveland Browns 0-16 parade. A viral internet personality, McNeil’s audience of over 500,000 social media followers (@reflog_18) hangs onto his every word and every meme about the Browns, Guardians, Cavs, Buckeyes, and all Ohio sports. He is a co-host on the Big Play Reflog Show on BigPlay.com
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