It was all Cleveland, all day. The defense smothered the Texans, and Joe Flacco to Amari Cooper could not be stopped, en route to a 36-22 win as the Browns improve to 10-5 on the season. The final score was closer when the backups went in. The only blemish was still a big one, though, involving special teams. Let’s get to the full game recap.
The Browns received the opening kickoff, and RB Pierre Strong set the offense up with good starting field position by returning it to the Browns’ 41 yard line. Then, on first down, QB Joe Flacco didn’t waste any time going deep, as he aired it out for WR Amari Cooper down the middle for 53 yards down to the 6 yard line.
On 1st-and-goal from the 6 yard line, RB Kareem Hunt took the direct snap and gained 2 yards. On 2nd-and-goal from the 4, Flacco was by himself in the gun, but his pass over the middle to Njoku was incomplete as two defenders were blanketing him. On 3rd-and-goal from the 4, Flacco split out wide again and RB Jerome Ford took the direct snap. Ford ran toward Flacco’s side, and the defense stayed back in case of a pitch back. Instead, Ford just kept it and turned the corner for the touchdown to give the Browns the early 7-0 lead.
The Browns were plagued by a couple of defensive holding calls to start Houston’s first drive, allowing the Texans to get the ball to midfield. But then, Houston sort of shot themselves in the foot by bringing QB Davis Mills in for a first down run play that went no where, and then the team’s next run play set up 3rd-and-9. A false start after that made it 3rd-and-14. QB Case Keenum couldn’t convert, only getting a short pass underneath for 3 yards. Houston’s punt unit came on and pinned Cleveland back at the 10 yard line.
Flacco completed a third down pass to WR Cedric Tillman to pick up one first down, but the drive didn’t move further after that when the ground game was stuffed for no gain on two straight carries. Houston would begin at their 34 yard line after the punt.
A hold by the Texans to begin their next drive put them in a bad down-to-distance situation at first before getting to a 3rd-and-9. The quarterback rotation continued, as Mills was in prior to third down and Keenum came back to throw an incomplete pass on third down.
Flacco connected with Cooper on a perfect 22 yard pass to begin the next drive. On the next play, QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson came on and handed off to Strong, but that was also stuffed for no gain. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-6, Flacco had no where to go, and his checkdown to Hunt was stopped for a loss of 1 yard. P Corey Bojoquez pinned Houston back inside the 10 yard line, but a hold on Cleveland forced them to re-kick. This time, Houston got it to the 20 yard line.
The Texans got a 17-yard burst from RB Devin Singletary to start the next drive. Due to an offsides penalty, Houston headed into the second quarter facing a 2nd-and-15 situation.
A short gain to begin the quarter set up another 3rd-and-long for the Texans, needing 11 yards. They ran a quick receiver screen that only got half the yards, forcing another punt. WR James Proche made the fair catch at the 10 yard line. The running game actually moved the ball for positive yardage to begin the drive, setting up 2nd-and-5. They gave it to Ford again, and he picked up 10 yards to move the chains. Those two runs set up the playaction fake and Flacco taking another deep shot to Cooper, this time up the left sideline. Cooper shook off the hold from the defender, caught the pass, and continued running for a 75-yard touchdown pass to put Cleveland up 14-0!
Unfortunately, Houston responded on the ensuring kickoff, as RB Dameon Pierece went 98 yards for a touchdown to get the Texans on the board at 14-7.
Houston’s momentum continued after that, as C Ethan Pocic was flagged for a hold on a screen pass to RB Kareem Hunt. Cleveland had to play it safe and settle for a punt, and Houston made the fair catch at the 33 yard line to set up their next drive.
The defense appeared to respond with a three-and-out on the next drive, as Keenum was sacked on third down. However, CB M.J. Emerson was flagged for the third time of the half (this time for illegal contact), and it gave the Texans a fresh set of downs. On the next third down, though, DE Za’Darius Smith — who had his sack wiped out a few plays earlier — finished Keenum again, and this time it counted. Houston’s punt only went 34 yards, giving the offense good starting field position at the 50 yard line (an illegal bat penalty on Houston pushed it from the 40 to the 50).
Of note, K Dustin Hopkins was hurt on the kickoff return earlier, and appeared to be out.
On third down, Flacco had tons of time to throw and eventually found WR Elijah Moore uncovered underneath for an 18-yard catch-and-run. That was followed by a 13-yard pass to TE Jordan Akins, to the 19 yard line. Ford was stuffed for a loss of 2 yards on the next play. It didn’t matter — Flacco just dropped a dime to Njoku over the middle, with two defenders in coverage, for a touchdown to put the Browns up 20-7. With Hopkins out, the Browns lined up to go for two points. DTR came in and dropped back, and ended up running it in himself to make it a 22-7 lead.
Bojorquez pulled double duty by squibbing the ensuing kickoff, which was returned to the 32 yard line. Fans booed the Texans on their next drive, because after a sack on second down, they just ran a give up draw play on third down before punting it away. Cleveland would have the ball at 19 yard line at the two-minute warning, but a 15-yard penalty on the Texans gave it to Cleveland at the 34 yard line instead.
On second down, Flacco tried gunning it downfield again, looking for WR Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin didn’t do the best job in the one-on-one battle, allowing the defender to pick it off at the 16 yard line with 1:30 to go and Houston having all three timeouts. After Houston drove it to their own 41 yard line DT Shelby Harris tipped a pass and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah picked it off, returning it to the Texans’ 41 yard line.
With 0:23 left and only one timeout and no kicker, Flacco gunned a 23 yard pass to Cooper, as the Browns took a timeout with 0:15 left at the 18 yard line. Flacco’s first down pass was incomplete, leaving 0:11 left. A throwaway on second down left 0:05. On their last chance, Flacco was picked in the end zone.
Houston started the second half well, getting a 17-yard run by Singletary. However, Smith registered his second sack of the day after that, and the Texans’ next two dumpoffs weren’t enough to move the chains. Houston punted, and Proche made the fair catch back at the 6 yard line, putting the Browns’ offense in a hole. Passes of 4 and 5 yards to Njoku gave the offense some cushion ahead of a 3rd-and-1. Flacco went playaction and fired the quick slant to Cooper for 8 yards and a first down.
The short completions continued to be wide open, and Flacco kept hitting them to a variety of receivers toward midfield. Then, Flacco faced pressure and found Cooper for 19 yards, down to the 32 yard line, putting him at 200 yards receiving on the day. A few plays later, a 5-yard loss on a run by Ford set up 3rd-and-8 at the 30 yard line. Flacco missed the screen pass to Hunt, and it would’ve been a huge play had they connected. Not having a kicker still, they went for it on fourth down. As Flacco was being tackled in the pocket, he got off an incredible 13-yard sideline pass to Cooper for a first down.
The Texans then had too many men on the field, making it 1st-and-5 at the 12 yard line. His pass to Moore fell incomplete, and then Hunt took the direct snap on second down and gained 3 yards to set up 3rd-and-2 from the 9 yard line. Flacco did a quarterback sneak to pick up those yards and a first down, setting up 1st-and-goal at the 7 yard line. He finished it with a 7-yard strike to Cooper, culminating a beautiful 18-play, 89-yard drive that lasted 9:39. That made it 28-7, but the two-point try this time was no good.
The Texans went three-and-out on their next drive, as Keenum’s arm was hit by Smith on third down and S Duron Harmon camped under it for the interception at the Browns’ 49 yard line.
The Flacco-to-Cooper connection continued, with a 21-yard strike up the left side, putting Cooper at 241 yards. Flacco then had Moore wide open for a 20-yard gain, and it hit him between the numbers and he dropped it. Two run plays set the Browns up for 4th-and-5 at the 25 yard line heading to the fourth quarter.
On 4th-and-5, Flacco threw a stick route to Tillman for 7 yards and a first down. Tillman was nearly stripped, but recovered. A few plays later, on 3rd-and-6, Flacco threw a quick screen to Moore for a gain of a yard. On 4th-and-5 at the 13 yard line, Cleveland went for it again. Flacco hit Cooper on the right side for a first down 11 yards to the 2 yard line (a late hit moved it to the 1 yard line).
On 1st-and-goal, the defender held on to Njoku, moving the ball to the half yard line. This time, Hunt got the handoff and scored, making it 34-7. Flacco stayed on for the two-point try this time, and Flacco zipped it to Cooper for the conversion to make it 36-7.
The Texans went three-and-out and failed on their fourth down attempt, giving the Browns offense the ball at the Texans’ 40 yard line with 11 minutes to go. Flacco’s day was done, and DTR came on to finish the game off. He got the team to the 29 yard line, but on 4th-and-11, still not having a kicker, they went for it again and he was sacked for 11 yards and a turnover on downs (now with 8 minutes to go).
Mills was now at quarterback for Houston, and Cleveland had their backups in. He got completions of 10, 16, and 18 yards to get to the Browns’ 17 yard line. A 12-yard pass to WR Robert Woods put the ball at the 5 yard line. A few plays later, on 3rd-and-goal from the 5, Mills found WR Nico Collins for a touchdown, making it a 36-13 game. Houston went for two, getting the conversion to make it 36-15 with six minutes to go.
Davis Mills connects with Nico Collins for the TD pic.twitter.com/tofPXOhzfK— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 24, 2023
Houston then recovered the onside kick, making things moderately interesting from Houston’s perspective since they got the ball at midfield, down 21 points. The defense forced three straight incomplete passes, and then on 4th-and-10, Mills found his tight end for a 14-yard gain and a first down. Mills continued to work quick, getting completions of 10 and 19 yards to set up a 1st-and-goal at the 10 yard line. He then got a 1-yard touchdown pass with 4:12 remaining, and the extra point made it a 36-22 game.
Proche recovered the Texans’ next onside kick. With it now being back to a 14-point game, Flacco returned to the field. Hunt took the direct snap and was stopped for no gain, but a 15-yard facemask penalty was called on the Texans. A few plays later, on 4th-and-7 and Houston having burned two timeouts with 3:49 to go, Flacco found Cooper for 13 yards and a first down. That allowed Cooper to break the Browns’ single-game receiving record at 265 yards.
On 4th-and-12 at the Texans’ 15 yard line, Cleveland went for it again on fourth down. They didn’t convert this time, and the Texans took over at the 17 yard line with 2:06 remaining and no timeouts, needing two touchdowns. The Browns’ first-team defense returned, and helped keep the final score at 36-22.
Up next, the Browns play their home finale on Thursday Night Football against the Jets.
- QB Joe Flacco: 27-of-42 for 368 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT.
- RB Jerome Ford: 15 carries, 25 yards (1.7 YPC), 1 TD.
- WR Amari Cooper: 11 catches, 265 yards, 2 TD.
- TE David Njoku: 6 catches, 44 yards, 1 TD.
- DL Za’Darius Smith: 2 sacks.