This Saturday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Houston Texans to kick off the NFL Playoffs for Wild Card Weekend. Below, we analyze a few advantages, disadvantages, and general thoughts about the two teams before getting to our predictions for the game.
Browns Face Another Re-Match in Playoffs
- This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the Cleveland Browns have faced a quick re-match in the postseason. The last time they made the postseason, for the 2020 NFL season with Baker Mayfield, the Browns edged out a 24-22 win in the regular season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backups in Cleveland. One week later, they squared off in Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. We know how that went. The Browns jumped out to a 28-0 first quarter lead, stunning the NFL world, en route to a 48-37 victory.
- The point of that is to say that no matter how ugly a team looks one week, surprises can always happen in the postseason. Even though the Browns had a 36-7 lead against the Texans on Christmas Eve in a blowout in the same building that this week’s game, nothing can be taken for granted.
- That has been a great quality of this year’s Browns team, though — I have never gotten the vibe that they’ve been cocky, played down to their competition, etc. And obviously, they know there is a huge difference between facing Case Keenum and facing C.J. Stroud. With Keenum in the lineup, I felt just as confident as I did against the Arizona Cardinals earlier this year that Houston would not be able to move the football. The Texans don’t do the type of misdirection plays that have given the Browns’ defense fits, and Keenum doesn’t have the type of arm or mobility to counteract Cleveland’s approach on defense. But with Stroud? That’s another story.
- Stroud put together an excellent rookie season, throwing for 4,108 yards, completing 64% of his passes, and throwing 23 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions. His QB rating on the season was 100.8. He really only struggled once this season, and that was a bad weather day against the Jets. Although I’m confident in the Browns’ defense, this is the same quarterback who threw for 470 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Buckeyes fans don’t have to be sold on how good he can be.
- When you look at his numbers against teams with the better passing defenses in the NFL, though, his numbers are a lot more pedestrian, averaging closer to 200 yards passing and 1 touchdown against those clubs. Cleveland has the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL, and even though Grant Delpit is still out, Ronnie Hickman has been playing out of his mind for a rookie safety. If Stroud, or any quarterback, beats us in the postseason, they’ll have had to earn it.
Riding Joe Flacco to the End
- The cautious side of my brain says, “It’s not normal for Joe Flacco to be doing this; it’d be understandable if he laid an egg one of these weeks.” But we’re not banking on that. Flacco has been terrific, and he shredded this Texans defense a few weeks ago, including throwing 265 yards to Amari Cooper.
- I was nervous about Cooper having missed the past few weeks with a heel injury, but he is ready to go. Will Houston change something up to account for him? They aren't traditionally a team that plays man defense, but Flacco was great at attacking beyond the zone. The crazy thing about that 265-yard effort was that I didn't even feel like Flacco tried forcing the ball to him. He has been fantastic at spotting the best open receiver, and this week, that could be David Njoku. The Texans struggle at defending tight ends, as Matt Wilson broke down this week.
- The Browns will have a personnel change this week: with Cedric Tillman out, I expect David Bell to get a decent amount of reps at receiver, and don't be surprised if Marquise Goodwin gets a crack at beating the Texans' defense deep.
- That's the crazy thing about what Flacco has been doing. Sure, he and Cooper lit it up last time, but he just cares about finding the open man and slinging it. He'll throw it to Harrison Bryant for 100+ yards if he wants to; you can't quite say he's restricted to one particular guy, and that helps keep defenses honest.
- Cleveland is without Dustin Hopkins this week, and that means Riley Patterson gets the call again. We got a little bit of a sour impression on him when he missed an extra point against the Jets, but his career numbers are really solid indoors, and he's playing without a concern for weather conditions this week.
Riley Patterson— Matt Fontana (@MattFontana83) January 9, 2024
Career vs Houston- 2 games, 4/4 XP, 3/3 FG
Career in a dome- 14 games, 39/40 XP, 25/26 FG
Career in playoffs- 2 games, 4/4 XP, 3/3 FG#Browns
Denzel Ward came down with a knee injury during the final practice, and is now questionable. Hopefully, that is just a very minor thing. If you remember, prior to the Browns' four-game winning streak, the defense allowed some big plays to Denver and the Rams through the air while Ward was out.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Browns are 2.5 point favorites against the Texans.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “Joe Flacco is our ride-or-die, and the Browns' defense is amped up for this big moment. C.J. Stroud is really good, but has been closer to average against the better pass defenses in the NFL, and you don't get better than what Cleveland has. Cleveland maintains control and wins in Houston again.” Browns 27, Texans 20
Thomas Moore: “The Cleveland Browns will face a different Houston Texans team from the one they played just a few weeks ago. This time around, instead of journeymen Case Keenum and Davis Mills at quarterback, the Texans will have rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud back under center. All Stroud did this season was throw for more than 4,100 yards, 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
While Stroud presents a big challenge, the two times he faced a good defense this season resulted in losses to the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. You have to like the matchup of this Browns defense — the league’s best in many key areas — against a rookie quarterback making his first playoff start.
On the other side is veteran quarterback Joe Flacco, who has started 15 playoff games in his career. It is clear what the Browns will do on offense — try to run the ball as best they can and look for big plays in the passing game from wide receiver Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku. That is all well and good, but it is the turnovers that are a concern as the offense has committed 12 turnovers with Flacco at quarterback, nine of which are on Flacco’s tab.
This is a game the Browns should win, especially if they can just stop giving the ball away, but it will be a much closer contest than the last time the two teams met.” Browns 28, Texans 24
Barry Shuck: “The Browns defeated the Texans in Week 16 pretty handily, although Houston did rally at the end of the game and made it look closer than it was. That was without QB C.J. Stroud who is truly a difference-maker. Do not for one second believe Cleveland will just roll into the nation’s fourth-largest city and take prisoners as before. The biggest weakness with the Texans is their pass defense, which is very shaky. They will allow big yardage through the air but are the stingiest with just 17 passing TDs. They do put a lot of pressure on the QB and the Browns offensive line isn’t what it used to be with our biggest weakness RT James Hudson. The pass rushers on that side are rookie Will Anderson and the willy veteran Jerry Hughes which spells trouble. Cleveland will need a tight end to help Hudson with chips or flat-out double teams. On the other side of the ball, Houston is a very good passing team whereas the Browns are ranked second-best against the pass so that will be a matchup to watch. I believe it will be close and low-scoring and either team could win and advance. Cleveland will miss K Dustin Hopkins and that reliable leg.” Browns 24, Texans 20
Jared Mueller: “There are plenty of reasons the Cleveland Browns could lose on Saturday but far more that they will win. Overall, the Browns are a more talented team with more experience even outside of QB Joe Flacco.
Everything from Week 16 gets thrown out the window for the Houston Texans offense but their defense still needs to stop Cleveland's offense and rookie CJ Stroud has to deal with the Browns defense.” Browns 28, Texans 21
Curtiss Brown: “I’m getting my wisdom teeth removed on Friday (off-topic) so I am hoping I will be up to the challenge of watching the wild card game this Saturday with not much stress. Anyway, the postseason is different from the regular season. The possessions are crucial and the mistakes are magnified. From the way that the media has been talking lately, it appears that the Texans are now the favorites and the Browns are the underdogs for some reason.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud is good, we all know that but he has some weaknesses. He struggles against teams that run man coverage and the stats and the film back that up. Houston’s wide receivers lack separation and the Browns cornerbacks are sticky in coverage. Cleveland has the edge in talent and experience but Houston will be up for the challenge. Close competitive game, give me Cleveland in a closer game than expected.” Browns 23, Texans 16
Ezweav: “It goes without saying that the Christmas Eve game against Houston is not really reflective of of good they are or can be. So expecting a repeat performance, particularly on defense, is going to be a tall order. CJ Stroud is a sensational rookie, and this most definitely is not going to be easy against that offense.
However, it’s worth noting that whatever else happened in that contest, among them was Kevin Stefanski absolutely dominating Demeco Ryans on scheme. The stuff we were doing to mess with their LB’s eyes was seriously impressive, and played a big role in the lopsided victory.
Two pieces of bad news for the Texans: Stefanski is still scheming up the plays and will exploit whatever it is they do to counter the Christmas Eve contest. Secondly, the thing CJ Stroud struggles the most against (Cover 1/man) happens to be our bread-and-butter. We are a very bad matchup for them.
And it’s why I’m not overly confident that we’ll prevail on Saturday, but I am confident.
(Playoff-shout out to NTN)” Browns 11, Texans 5
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.