Prediction, Preview, and Odds #141 Cleveland Browns vs. #142 Houston Texans  Saturday, January 13, 2024 at 4:30pm EST  NRG Stadium, Houston  Written by Michael Briggs

The Browns defeated the Texans 36-22 in Houston on Dec. 24. WR Amari Cooper set a Cleveland franchise record with 265 receiving yards in the win. He also had two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Houston managed only 250 total yards, as QB Case Keenum (11-for-17 for 62 yards and two INTs) started in place of C.J. Stroud. He was replaced by Davis Mills (15-for-32 for 149 yards and two scores) in the third quarter. The Browns led 22-7 at halftime and never looked back.


Winners of four of its last five, Cleveland enters Wild Card weekend with plenty of expectations. Its only loss came in the final week of the regular season with its starters resting for the postseason, so it will feel untouchable on Saturday. QB Joe Flacco has lit a fire under the seats of Dawg Pound faithful, inspiring confidence in a team many wrote off when Deshaun Watson was injured.


The Browns have an exciting team capable of making a run this year. They won’t make it to Super Bowl Sunday, but they’re capable of upsetting a team or two. Cleveland’s winning formula is two parts Flacco and five parts defense. It will rush the passer (49 sacks and 2nd in pass rush win rate), work the ball downfield through the air (323.2 passing yards per game with Flacco), and lock down its opponents’ passing game (1st in passing yards allowed).


The Browns sport a lengthy injury list heading into Saturday’s contest, with several notable faces sitting out practice earlier in the week. Among the notable injured players are K Dustin Hopkins, who is doubtful to play with a hamstring injury, WR Amari Cooper (probable), Flacco (probable), and DE Myles Garrett, who is questionable with shoulder and hamstring injuries. That said, it appears most of the troops will be prepared for war this weekend.





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Houston has an exciting future with rookie phenom QB C.J. Stroud. It finished the regular season on a 7-3 run and solidified its playoff status in dramatic fashion, beating division rival Indianapolis last week for a spot at the postseason table. The Texans have what it takes to make it past the first round, but will they continue dancing after that?


The boys from H-Town beat Indy 23-19 last Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, as Stroud was an efficient 20-of-26 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t get much assistance from the Texans’ backs (60 yards on 28 carries) but made the most of his red zone trips (2-for-2). Indianapolis outgained Houston by 54 yards and never trailed by a wide margin but was only 1-for-11 on third down despite rushing for 6.1 yards per carry.


The Texans appear rested and healthy for Saturday’s Wild Card showdown, although several defensive players are designated as questionable to suit up. Make sure to monitor the injury report for updates on their gameday availability.



How will Stroud perform in his first NFL postseason? If he does play well, he’ll be an outlier. Quarterbacks making their first postseason appearance are 27-50 straight-up and 30-46-1 against the spread since 2002. He’ll face arguably the toughest challenge of his pro career, as Cleveland’s defense was the top-rated stop unit in EPA allowed per play and success rate allowed this season. It’s the toughest stop unit he’s faced since losing 30-6 to the New York Jets in Week 14.


What we know is that the Browns will put pressure on him all game long. What we don’t know is how they’ll play if he holds up to the pressure, as the Texans’ ground game is legit. Running back Devin Singletary has emerged as the team’s top rusher, averaging 4.5 yards per carry since Week 9. Cleveland’s soft spot is its run defense, and it showed in the last three weeks (5.1 yards per carry allowed). With Stroud sidelined and Houston behind early, Singletary only had nine carries in the Texans’ Week 16 loss to the Browns, but the early results were encouraging (4.9 YPC).


On the other sideline, the veteran Flacco will attempt to shock the football world. The late-season pickup’s successful run (5-1 ATS) has been magical, but was that a hot streak or the real deal? He’ll face a Texans defense that’s tough to run against but allowed the sixth most yards per passing attempt (7.0). They can also rush the passer (5th in pressure rate despite blitzing infrequently), but Cleveland’s offensive line is formidable.


To wrap this up, I expect this to be a high-scoring game. The Browns will set the pace, as Flacco will connect often with Cooper and David Njoku. Houston ranks 16th in defensive DVOA and is 23rd against the pass. The Browns’ offense looked like a different animal with Flacco under center, and the proof was in the pudding in their Week 16 win over Houston. Stroud will make a difference this time, but Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith will be in his face all game. Stroud finished with the eighth-most sacks taken (38), even though he played in only 15 games. This will allow the Cleveland secondary to ease into coverage, forcing the rookie to be too perfect to keep pace with Flacco.



The Browns and Texans will combine for 45-plus points in Saturday’s Wild Card round. The over is 4-1 in Cleveland’s games that Flacco started, and one of those overs came against Houston. With Stroud under center this time, the over looks even more appetizing.


This matchup pits two explosive aerial attacks, as Stroud’s 273.9 passing yards per game ranked third and Flacco’s 323.2 ranked first. Cooper, Njoku, and Elijah Moore will factor into the passing game early and often for Cleveland, and Nico Collins has emerged as a No. 1 receiver for Houston. The Browns’ defense is for real, but its home/road splits were Jekyll and Hyde (13.9 points allowed per home game vs. 29.6 ppg on the road). I don’t expect them to give up 30 points to the rookie Stroud on Saturday, but he should have some success once Houston establishes its ground game.


The over is 20-14 in Cleveland’s road games under head coach Kevin Stefanski and was 10-6-1 overall in Browns games this season. I’ll bet that trend stays hot this weekend at NRG Stadium.



Gideon Canice

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