Browns' improbable season continues in Houston with AFC wild-card round matchup

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski on the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

CLEVELAND (AP) — This season jammed with unexpected twists, hard turns, highs, lows and Joe Flacco’s improbable arrival is circling back down a familiar path for the Cleveland Browns.

For the second time in three weeks, Cleveland is headed to Houston.

With so much more at stake.

The Browns (11-6) will make just their third playoff appearance since they returned to the league in 1999 when they face the Texans (10-7) on Saturday in an AFC wild-card game with subplots galore.

“I’m going home,” said Browns defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo, who is from Houston, played for the Texans last season and missed last month’s game with a pectoral injury. “Let’s get it. Look, winning in my city — can’t write a better story.”

Except for maybe Flacco’s.

On Dec. 24, in his fourth start for Cleveland, the soon-to-be-39-year-old Flacco, who was helping his wife shuttle kids to school in New Jersey when the Browns invited him for a tryout in November, passed for 368 yards — 265 to wide receiver Amari Cooper — and three touchdowns in a 36-22 victory over the Texans.

However, the win came with a significant asterisk.

Houston played without sensational rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who sat out with a concussion but is now healthy and coming off a strong performance (20 of 26, 264 yards, 2 TDs) in a playoff-clinching win at Indianapolis on Saturday night.

It seems fitting the Browns and Texans are meeting again. After all, the teams have been linked since the March 2022 trade of quarterback Deshaun Watson, a megadeal that shifted both organizations and their fan bases.

Desperate for a franchise quarterback, the Browns traded three first-round draft picks (five selections overall) to the Texans for Watson, who has spent more time off the field than on it with Cleveland after being suspended 11 games by the NFL in 2022 and suffering a season-ending shoulder injury this season.

Watson’s ballyhooed return to Houston last year was the dominant storyline.

He’s a footnote on Saturday.

The Browns will count on Flacco’s postseason experience — this will be his 16th playoff game — to give them a major edge over Stroud, who played on the big stage at Ohio State but will be facing Cleveland’s top-ranked defense.

Houston also has a rookie head coach in DeMeco Ryans, who turned a 3-13-1 squad from a year ago into a division champion.

This is Cleveland’s second postseason trip in four years under Kevin Stefanski, who missed the Browns’ playoff road win at Pittsburgh during the 2020 season after testing positive for COVID-19. Stefanski watched on TV from his basement.

Following Sunday’s loss in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati, Stefanski, who is 10-0 vs. AFC South teams, didn’t want to look too far ahead.

“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about them this week,” he said of the Texans. “Obviously I have a ton of respect for their team, their coaches. They do a great job. I know how good a team that is.”

So does Houston.


Cleveland’s passing offense shifted into a new gear because of Flacco’s big arm, pocket patience and fearlessness — some might say recklessness — to throw into tight coverage.

The Browns have averaged a league-high 312 yards passing since Week 13, and Flacco has completed 27 passes of more than 20 yards in that span while going 4-1 as a starter.


The Browns managed just 54 yards rushing against the Texans, and they need better balance against a Houston defense that was missing defensive end Will Anderson Jr. and linebacker Blake Cashman because of injuries and lost sacks leader Jonathan Greenard with an ankle injury early in the Dec. 24 game.


Second-year wide receiver David Bell was one of the few bright spots in the meaningless loss to the Bengals, getting touchdown catches in the second half. Bell had a career-high 68 yards on four receptions.

Bell isn’t flashy, but he gets open and has dependable hands.

With No. 3 receiver Cedric Tillman in the concussion protocol after getting hurt against the Bengals, Bell could have an expanded role in the playoffs.


Cleveland’s backups showed why they’re backups in Sunday’s loss.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel had a rough afternoon but could hardly be blamed with just a few days to prepare after being signed off Arizona’s practice squad. Still, Driskel bounced back in the second half and may have shown enough for Stefanki to keep him as the No. 2 QB behind Flacco.


Kicker Dustin Hopkins missed his third straight game Sunday with a hamstring injury sustained against the Texans. The Browns weren’t optimistic about him being back for the wild-card round, meaning Riley Patterson likely will start. … S Grant Delpit (groin) is eligible to come off injured reserve and his return would bolster a secondary missing S Juan Thornhill (calf).


112 — Punts forced by Cleveland’s defense, the third-most in a season since 1970. Only the 1984 Los Angeles Raiders (117) and 1999 Baltimore Ravens (115) forced more.


If anyone knows the playoff road, it’s Flacco, who has seven career postseason road wins, tying him with Tom Brady for the most in league history.


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