4:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Browns -2.5, Over/Under: 44.5
The playoffs are finally here, and the themes for this Wild Card Weekend are reunions and rematches, with the first up being the resilient Cleveland Browns traveling to NRG Stadium to battle the vastly improved Houston Texans in the first matchup of Saturday’s slate of action. As we stated in the opening, there isn’t a word better suited to describe this year’s Browns (11-6, 2nd in AFC North) than resilient, for you would be hard-pressed to find many teams that could overcome the amount of adversity that they have. If you thought that the 2022 campaign was an arduous one for Cleveland, what with the ongoing saga of (former Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Deshaun Watson’s acquisition and subsequent suspension, this past season saw them decimated due to injuries, with a slew of notable players biting the proverbial dust. Indeed, this is a team that lost (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Nick Chubb and (veteran Right Tackle) Jack Conklin to season-ending maladies in WEEK TWO, before two more Starting Tackles, Jedrick Wills and Dawand Jones. Furthermore, Watson eventually succumbed to shoulder surgery after weeks of struggling with his accuracy and touch, while his backups, (journeyman) P.J. Walker and (rookie) Dorian Thompson-Robinson each saw brief stints as the starter before being claimed by injury. At this point, it would have been very easy Stefanski & Co to throw in the proverbial towel, but credit to everyone in the building for soldiering ahead. Then again, even with so many absences on offense, they remained in playoff contention thanks to a hellacious defense whose potential was finally unlocked by (longtime Defensive Coordinator) Jim Schwartz. Simply put, bringing Schwartz back to Northern Ohio was a masterstroke on behalf of Stefanski, with the veteran taskmaster turning these dawgs into the top-ranked unit in the NFL. The Browns relinquished just 270.2 total yards (1st Overall), while also shipping the fewest first downs (14.94) and the lowest success rates on third and fourth down (29.1% and 40.0%). (Pro-Bowl Defensive End) was a force of nature, with fourteen sacks, thirty QB hits, thirty-seven pressures, and four forced fumbles, while (fellow Pro-Bowler) Denzel Ward emerged as a borderline elite cover man with two interceptions and fourteen defended passes. As the calendar shifted to December, it was clear that the only thing missing to propel this team into the playoffs was a Quarterback, with Stefanski and (General Manager) Andrew Berry performing yet another masterstroke in luring (veteran QB) Joe Flacco out of semi-retirement. This really is a great story, folks, for Flacco (pictured below) had appeared in just twelve games (nine starts) over the previous three seasons and went the first three months of the season unclaimed. However, the 36-year-old has proven to be a magical fit for Cleveland, leading them to four consecutive wins and a playoff appearance with one week to spare. In five appearances, Flacco has completed 60.3% of his passes for a whopping 323.2 yards per game on 7.35 net yards per attempt, with thirteen touchdowns opposed to eight interceptions, all the while operating with an abridged playbook and getting to know his teammates. It is clear that father time has not affected his arm, as the former Super Bowl MVP is averaging a whopping 9.3 intended air yards per pass, the second highest of his career, while his completed air yardage per completion (7.6) stands as a personal best. When we last saw him, he and his teammates secured postseason passage with a watershed 37-20 thumping of the lowly Jets, who ironically passed on bringing the veteran back for a third consecutive season. Flacco responded with THREE touchdowns before halftime, including a 50-yard strike to (Sophomore Tailback) Jerome Ford shortly before intermission. The hosts outgained Gang Green 428-360 in total yards despite committing three turnovers, one of which was returned to the house. Then again, Schwartz’s defense returned the favor, as (Rookie Safety) Ronnie Hickman returned an interception of Trevor Siemian thirty yards to paydirt. Flacco would end the night with 309 yards on 19-of-29 passing in roughly three quarters of play, with (emerging Tight End) David Njoku posting all but six of his 134 yards in the first quarter.
From a betting perspective, the Browns seriously overachieved with an 11-5 record straight-up, matching their highest win total in TWENTY-SIX years. However, they’ve also proven to be one of the most rewarding teams in the NFL in terms of the spread, posting a stellar 10-6-1 mark. In our opinion, the oddsmakers had a hard time getting a handle on Cleveland this season given the aforementioned instability at Quarterback, though the league’s top-ranked defense allowed them to level the playing field against many opponents, including the 49ers (+9.5) and Ravens (+5.5), who are the number one seeds from their respective conferences and were nonetheless defeated. Prior to resting the bulk of their starters in last weekend’s finale in Cincinnati, Stefanski’s troops had won and covered four consecutive contests, all of which came as favorites, including a 36-22 drubbing of the Texans at NRG Stadium, where they were favored by three points. Granted, the outcome of this affair should be taken with a grain of salt considering the absence of (Rookie QB) C.J. Stroud (much more on him in a bit), but it is impossible to ignore the performance that the offense put together; the dawgs erupted for 418 total yards on twenty-six first downs, with the bulk of it coming via the connection of Flacco to (Pro-Bowl Wideout) Amari Cooper, with the latter setting a franchise record with 265 yards and two touchdowns on eleven receptions. Indeed, Flacco was in his bag in this one, folks, bombing away downfield with six completions of 20+ yards, all but one of which going to Cooper. Granted, the veteran Quarterback tossed a pair of interceptions to go with his three touchdowns and 368 yards, but that is partly a byproduct of him pushing the ball vertically despite still learning the nuances of Stefanski’s system. That victory was the Browns fourth in a row over the Texans, with each of the last two coming on the road. Ironically, the away side has covered the spread in all four of those encounters. Furthermore, this is a team that has covered SIX straight tilts against opponents above .500, which is relevant because, well, we are in the playoffs now. And speaking of the playoffs, this is where Flacco has really earned his money; dating back to 2008, he owns a sterling 10-5 record in the postseason, completing 56.6% of his throws for an average of 215.3 yards on 6.79 net yards per attempt, with twenty-six total touchdowns in comparison to thirteen turnovers, highlighted by the crowning achievement of his career, the Ravens’ triumph over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. On the injury front, Cleveland should be as healthy as they have been in a while following last weekend’s trip to Southern Ohio, though there are a few players whose status will be in question for this Wild Card clash. (Safety) Juan Thornhill (calf), (Cornerback) Greg Newsome II (knee), (Tailback) Kareem Hunt (groin), Cooper (heel) and Garrett (shoulder), are all officially listed as questionable for this trip to Houston, though the early news coming from the Dawg Pound is that they should be good to go. Looking ahead, if the Browns happen to be the lowest-seeded remaining team after the dust settles on Sunday, then they will be headed to M&T Bank for a third tango with the Ravens, otherwise they will cross paths with either the Chiefs or Bills, neither of whom they have faced this season.
Meanwhile, their opponent may be the most resilient team in the NFL this season, but the Texans (10-7, 1st in AFC South) are without a doubt the most improved outfit, and quite frankly it isn’t even close. Just a year ago, Houston stumbled to their third consecutive losing campaign (3-13-1), capping an era of ineptitude in which they held the worst record in the league at 11-38-1 (.220). During that time, the franchise was mired in the ongoing saga of the aforementioned Watson, whom they subsequently traded to Cleveland following a year-long suspension imposed by the team, and cycled through four different Head Coaches (including one interim), while (General Manager) Nick Caserio, who was hired following the 2020 term, struggling to lure any of his initial targets to Southern Texas. Thankfully, he hit a home run with the hiring of (Head Coach) DeMeco Ryans, who was fresh off of coordinating the number one defense in the league in the form of the 49ers. Of course, this marked a homecoming for Ryans, who played the first six years of his career with the franchise that drafted him back in 2006, earning two Pro-Bowl nods to boot. The 39-year-old also brought a number of assistant coaches with him from San Francisco, most notably (Offensive Coordinator) Bobby Slowik, who has installed the prolific scheme that has made their former employers the envy of the league. Of course, you need players to make any system work, and the Texans struck gold on this front too, particularly in the 2023 NFL Draft, where they enjoyed back-to-back selections in the first round, picking two franchise players in the process in the form of (Quarterback) C.J. Stroud and (Edge-Rusher) Will Anderson Jr. Of the two, Stroud (pictured below) has been nothing short of a revelation, particularly when you consider that the Panthers opted to pass on his talents at number one overall. Needless to say, their error has been Houston’s gain, as the Ohio State product has shattered expectations in completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 273.9 yards per game, the highest figure in the NFL, on a healthy 7.03 net yards per attempt, with twenty-three touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, leading to a QBR of 57.4. His ability to throw accurately from multiple arm angles to all three areas of the field, while exhibiting excellent movement skills within and outside the pocket, makes him a passer well ahead of schedule, which in turn has accelerated the growth of this team exponentially. Truthfully it appeared the only thing that could him back was a concussion suffered back in early December, sidelining him for back-to-back games as a result. Fortunately, he returned just in time to lead his team to their first AFC South Title since 2019, disposing of the fading Titans (26-3) before last weekend’s triumphant 23-19 victory in Indianapolis. After the hosts bled close to six minutes of the clock on their opening drive, the visiting side needed just nine seconds to reach the end zone, as Stroud rifled a 75-yard touchdown to (young Receiver) Nico Collins to take an early 7-3 lead. Four possessions later and it would be more of the same, as Houston took advantage of excellent field position to march downfield, with the 22-year-old finding (Tight End) Andrew Beck for another score before heading into halftime with a 14-6 advantage. The Colts would mount a comeback in the second half, drawing level before (veteran Tailback) Devin Singletary gave the lead right back to the visitors with 6:20 left to play. Indy responded by driving all the way down to their opponent’s 15-yard line, though an errant pass from Garner Minshew on a crucial fourth-and-one ultimately ended the game along with his side’s postseason hopes. In the end, Ryans troops prevailed largely on the strength of Stroud’s arm and the play of his defense, which bended without breaking throughout the night. Stroud deftly completed an efficient 20-of-26 passes for 264 yards and those two touchdowns, while Collins rung up a whopping 195 yards on nine receptions. Defensively, the Texans were comfortable in shipping 227 rushing yards on thirty-seven carries, but made plays when they had to, be it relinquishing only one touchdown or forcing the game’s lone turnover.
From a betting perspective, the Texans haven’t been quite as rewarding as their opponent in this Wild Card showdown, though they’ve still made the public some money, posting a 10-7 record straight-up and a 9-8 mark against the spread. Whereas Cleveland has done a lot of good work recently as a favorite, Houston has enjoyed the bulk of their success as an underdog, with all but two of their covers coming when receiving points from the oddsmakers. As the most improved team in the league, it took a good minute for the oddsmakers to catch up with Ryans’ troops, who won five of those outings outright, and even covered four straight tilts at one point in the first six weeks of the campaign. It should be noted that last weekend’s triumph over the Colts saw the opening line (-1.5) flip in favor of hosts midweek, adding another (unofficial) win to their ledger as a dog. With that being said, history is not on their side tonight, for this is a franchise that has failed to cover four straight playoff games when getting points. Looking at this particular matchup, the Texans have lost four consecutive meetings with the Browns (2-2 ATS), with the most recent being that aforementioned 22-36 defeat from three weeks ago. Of course, there is a mighty big asterisk to be associated with this one, folks, as Stroud missed the affair due to the lingering effects of a concussion. It was a disappointing effort at NRG Stadium, as the hosts were outgained 250-418 in total yards, including 211-364 through the air, while converting just 5-of-15 third downs and 1-of-3 fourth downs, with ten penalties for a loss of seventy-six yards, and a pair of turnovers. Interestingly, Ryans opted to field not one, but two Quarterbacks, as Davis Mills and Case Keenum appeared to alternate possessions, combining for 211 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions on 26-of-49 passing. Granted, this was probably some serious gamesmanship on the behalf of the hosts, though as you can tell from the final score, it wasn’t very effective. The bigger issue for the young Head Coach will be in tightening up his coverage on the back end, for the Secondary proved to be an unmitigated disaster whenever Flacco threatened them vertically. Remember, this is position group, with the likes of Derek Stingley Jr and Jalen Pitre having completed their second seasons in the NFL. On the injury front, Houston has been no stranger to the medical bay this season, what with a wealth of Offensive Linemen and Receivers missing time, though there are a pair of situations that bear monitoring. The first is that of (young Edge-Rusher) Jonathan Greenard, who leads the defense with a career-high 12.5 sacks and thirty-two pressures. A lingering ankle sprain kept him out of last weekend’s victory in Indianapolis, with Ryans listing him as questionable to participate in this Wild Card clash. The other is (journeyman Receiver) Noah Brown, who has been nursing a hip injury for weeks now. The 28-year-old logged 567 yards and three touchdowns after making the short trip down from Dallas, erupting for back-to-back 100-yard games in November. With (stellar Rookie) Tank Dell out of commission with a fractured fibula, a healthy Brown would be a boon to Stroud & Co. Looking ahead, if Houston is the lowest-remaining club following Sunday’s slate of games, then they will face the Ravens, whom they opened the campaign against back in September, otherwise they could entertain a host of other options, including a second consecutive home affair provided the Dolphins and Steelers each upset their respective opponents.