The Cleveland Browns’ postseason is over, as they fell to the Houston Texans 45-14. It was very similar to the Rams game in early December: the defense didn’t make any plays, and the opposition had really good quarterback play and misdirections. And then, when Cleveland was still hoping to claw back, disaster struck on offense — and in the blink of an eye, it turned to a blowout. Let’s get to the full game recap.
The Browns received the opening kickoff, and on the first two plays, QB Joe Flacco hit RB Jerome Ford and WR David Bell for gains of 11 and 5 yards, respectively. On 2nd-and-5, though, Ford was nailed by LB Denzel Perryman on a run blitz for a loss of 4 yards, and then on 3rd-and-9, Flacco faced pressure and his dumpoff to RB Kareem Hunt lost 6 yards. P Corey Bojorquez came out and delivered a nice punt, though, which was fair caught CB Desmond King at the 17 yard line.
For the Texans’ offense, QB C.J. Stroud started with a 21-yard strike to WR Nico Collins across the field with good protection. On the next play, Stroud found TE Dalton Schultz wide open on the right side, but the usually reliable tight end flat out dropped it. A few plays later, on 3rd-and-9, DE Myles Garrett jumped offsides to negate an incomplete pass. The Browns’ defense came up with the stop still, though, when Stroud tried to fire a pass to WR Noah Brown, but S Juan Thornhill was waiting back there to break up the pass. P Cameron Johnston came on and punted to the 8 yard line, pinning the Browns’ offense back for their second drive of the game.
Cleveland tried to get some breathing room with a 2-yard run by Hunt. On second down, the screen pass to Hunt fell incomplete with a rusher in Flacco’s face. The offense went three-and-out, and this time, Bojorquez got off a terrible punt, only going 32 yards out of bounds to the Browns’ 45 yard line.
The Texans faced an immediate 3rd-and-6 situation themselves. As pressure was coming, Stroud fired it downfield to Collins for a 38-yard gain after he had beaten CB Greg Newsome.
Facing a 1st-and-goal from the 3 yard line, Stroud’s first down shuffle pass was incomplete, thanks to pressure by Garrett. On second down, Stroud kept it for a yard, with CB Martin Emerson making the big stop. On 3rd-and-goal from the 2 yard line, Stroud tried to hit WR Robert Woods on the quick out, but Newsome had tight coverage to force the incomplete pass. Cleveland escaped with only allowing a 21-yard field goal to K Ka’imi Fairbairn, giving the Texans a 3-0 lead with 5:29 remaining in the first quarter.
TE David Njoku had a 45-yard catch-and-run to begin the Browns’ next drive, as the Texans’ defender was beat off the playaction pass.
On the next play, Flacco found Njoku again for another 8 yards. On 2nd-and-2, on another playaction pass, Flacco stayed patient and hit WR Amari Cooper on a 14-yard gain to the 8 yard line. On 1st-and-goal from the 8, Hunt went in Wildcat and ran it for 5 yards. On 2nd-and-goal at the 3 yard line, Flacco hit TE Harrison Bryant for a 2 yard gain to the 1 yard line. On 3rd-and-goal at the 1 yard line, Flacco handed off to hunt, and he plowed into the end zone with LG Joel Bitonio having the pull guard block. The game’s first touchdown put the Browns on top 7-3 with 2:09 remaining in the quarter.
The Texans responded quickly with big plays. RB Devin Singletary had a 29-yard run to start the drive, and then on the next play, Stroud flicked his wrist to hit open WR John Metchie III for 27 yards. After a 4-yard run by Collins, Stroud threw him a screen pass, which he took 15 yards for the touchdown to give the Texans a 10-7 lead with 0:11 left in the quarter.
Just when you thought the first quarter was pretty much done, though, Flacco ended it with a laser over the middle to TE Harrison Bryant, who did just as much damage with his legs on the catch-and-run of 47 yards to the 28 yard line.
The Browns ran it twice with Ford to set up 3rd-and-2 at the 20 yard line. Bitonio had to be helped off and jogged to the locker room after being rolled up on. Flacco kept it himself on third down for the first down on the sneak. Flacco floated a pass to Bell for 6 yards, and then on 2nd-and-4 from the 11 yard line, he shuffled a variation of a screen pass to Hunt right over the middle, and he had a burst and C Ethan Pocic out in front for the touchdown.
Now, it was time for the defense to step it up. They didn’t. On the first play, Stroud floated a short pass to TE Brevin Jordan, and he made defenders miss and took off for a 76-yard touchdown, the Texans’ biggest play of the season, to re-take the lead at 17-14 with 12 minutes left in the second quarter.
To start the next drive, the officials missed an obvious pass interference call, as the defender tackled Njoku before the ball arrived. Ford got hit for a loss on the next pass play, setting up 3rd-and-14. DE Derek Barnett sacked Flacco on third down, beating LT Geron Christian and forcing a punt. After the punt, the Texans took over at their own 44 yard line.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah forced losses of 1 and 2 yards to start the next drive, setting up 3rd-and-13. On third down, Collins beat the defense easily, running right by S Ronnie Hickman. Stroud simply airmailed the easy touchdown, leading to a punt that WR James Proche fair caught at the 10 yard line.
Ford got a hole for 7 yards to start the Browns’ next drive, and then Njoku caught a 5-yard pass between two defenders for a first down. On the next play, Flacco took off and was hit by a defender as he went into his slide, but no flag was thrown for it. A few plays later, on 3rd-and-8, Houston brought pressure, but Flacco’s pass to Njoku only gained 6 yards. With it being 4th-and-2 and not close enough to midfield, they sent out the punt unit. Bojorquez got off another shaky punt, only going 41 yards to the Texans’ 29 yard line with 5:44 remaining in the half.
Stroud continued being very effective with his passing, leading the Texans into Cleveland territory. On a 3rd-and-5 at the Browns’ 39 yard line, his pass up the left side to Schultz was incomplete, but Hickman was flagged for pass interference. Then, just before the two-minute warning, a 23-yard run by Singletary was negated when Houston was flagged for a hold, setting up 1st-and-18 at the two-minute warning. After a 2-yard loss, on 2nd-and-20, Stroud found a wide open Schultz for a 37-yard touchdown, as he got uncovered when the safety came down to try cheating on a crossing route by Collins. That put the Texans up 24-14 with 1:11 remaining in the half.
Flacco began the Browns’ drive with a 19-yard completion to Cooper, but after the next pass was incomplete, Flacco was sacked for a 9-yard loss. With only one timeout left, rather than trying to push the ball again, Cleveland opted to let the clock run out and get to the half down ten points.
After the Texans got to the 40 yard line, JOK came up with another play, stopping Collins on a 3rd-and-3 crossing route for a loss of a yard. Cleveland avoided disaster on the punt because they were flagged for illegal formation (on defense), but the Texans held JOK to negate it. Eventually, the Texans’ punt went out of bounds at the 15 yard line.
Flacco started the Browns’ first second half drive with 4- and 10-yard completions to Bell and Njoku. A couple of runs then set up 3rd-and-2 at their own 40 yard line. Off of playaction, Flacco hit Cooper over the middle for 16 yards and a fresh set of downs. Unfortunately, when trying a screen pass on the next play, Pocic was flagged for a hold, making it 1st-and-20. A short pass to Bell made it 2nd-and-16. Flacco then fired it to Bell over the middle for 16 yards and another first down to the Texans’ 34 yard line.
Unfortunately, disaster struck — as Flacco was being wrapped up from pressure, he tried to throw the ball away up the left side. Instead, it was a duck that went right to CB Steven Nelson, who returned it 82 yards for a pick six touchdown, giving the Texans a 31-14 lead with 6:05 to go in the third quarter.
The Flacco magic continued to take a hit on the next drive. Down 17 points, Flacco hit Bell for two completions to set up 3rd-and-1. After Hunt was stuffed for a loss, though, the Browns had to go for it on 4th-and-2 despite being backed up. Flacco tried a short pass, but it was picked off again, returned by LB Christian Harris for a touchdown to give Houston a 38-14 lead with 4:06 to go in the quarter.
On their next drive, Flacco got two third down completions to Njoku for 16 yards and Bryant for 11 yards. But now, RT James Hudson went out with an injury, putting the Browns even further down the depth chart. Facing a 4th-and-6 from the Texans’ 37 yard line, Harris came on an immediate unblocked rush and sacked Flacco for 13 yards and a turnover on downs back at midfield.
Houston’s offense hadn’t had the ball since the start of the third quarter, but that didn’t stop them from cruising. They continued moving the chains, and then Singletary finished the drive with a 19-yard run to put the Texans up 45-14 with 13:27 to go.
Cleveland took a more cautious approach on their next drive, running the ball with short passes, basically conceding that the 31-point deficit is insurmountable. They got to the Browns’ 46 yard line, and on 4th-and-3, Njoku couldn’t hang on to the pass, resulting in another turnover on downs.
The Texans brought in QB Davis Mills and punted after a three-and-out. Cleveland took over with 6:57 remaining. Flacco was sacked on fourth down again inside of two minutes, and Mills took a knee from there to end the game.
We were so amped up for this game as fans. And the thing that sucks is that both times we were excited when the Browns took the lead, first at 7-3 and then at 14-10, the Texans responded in less than two minutes and then in a few seconds to score touchdowns to re-take the lead. It was deflating.
The Browns’ season is over. With how magical the season was at times, especially the end of the season with Flacco, it sucks to have seen it end this way. These two teams played a very different game a few weeks ago, but the script was flipped this time as Houston made all of the adjustments, and Cleveland wasn’t ready for them. The Browns had a chance to overcome their poor defensive display if Flacco’s magic would’ve continued, but that first pick six in the third quarter was pretty much the nail in the coffin, and then it ballooned from there.
What’s next? The Browns focus on getting their offense healthy for the 2024 season, which means both of their offensive tackles, RB Nick Chubb, and QB Deshaun Watson. Then, on the defensive side of the ball, despite being ranked at the top of the NFL, there were a few teams that recognized the clear weakness that the Browns’ defense had — misdirection plays. How can they improve upon that?
- QB Joe Flacco: 34-of-46 for 307 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT.
- RB Kareem Hunt: 7 carries, 25 yards, 1 TD. 5 catches, 9 yards, 1 TD.
- WR Amari Cooper: 4 catches, 59 yards.
- TE David Njoku: 7 catches, 93 yards.