From contenders to pretenders
Remember how the Browns felt when they traveled down to Cincinnati 10 days ago and dismantled the Bengals?
Remember how good they looked in the process? Nothing went right for the Bengals and just about everything fell into place for the Browns, who bullied their intra-state rivals the entire game.
Well now they know how the Bengals felt back then after the Houston Texans rolled into Cleveland Sunday and played bully for the better part of 60 minutes en route to an astonishingly easy 23-7 victory.
They beat up on the Browns on both sides of the ball, shattering their three-game winning streak and putting an end to a three-game victory streak at home.
The first-place Browns looked much more like the cellar-dwellers they have been for most of this century. The Texans, who have split six road games this season, were never seriously threatened.
It was disappointing from a Cleveland perspective on many different levels, not the least of which was to actually look as though they were completely prepared for the Texans. They weren’t close.
The trenches belonged solely to the Texans. If the offensive line was not blasting the Cleveland defensive line four and five yards off the ball in the running game, it threw up an almost impenetrable wall around quarterback Ryan Mallett. It all made quarterbacking his first full game in the National Football League look easy.
The Cleveland defense, which lost linebackers Karlos Dansby and defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard to injuries, once again resembled a swinging gate through which the Houston running game sauntered with relative ease.
The Texans ran for 213 yards (not a misprint). Rookie Alfred Blue, starting for the injured Arian Foster, ran for 156 yards of that real estate, nearly half after contact. Tackling the ball carrier seems to be a foreign act for the Cleveland defense this season.
The Houston offensive line also provided a clean pocket for Mallett. At the end of the game, he had the cleanest uniform for the Texans. No need to place that jersey in the laundry basket. The only time he left his feet was to sit on the bench between possessions.
The Browns, blanked in the sack department, were officially credited with two hits (not seen by these eyes) on Mallett, who looked much more like a seasoned veteran than one making his starting debut as a professional.
He displayed a quick release, was decisive with his reads, made no glaring mistakes (unless you call Joe Haden’s interception of a deflected pass a mistake), rarely missed his open targets, looked comfortable (too comfortable) displaying his big arm and seemed in total control in the battle of Tom Brady backups.
Brian Hoyer, on the other hand, was inconsistent all afternoon for the Browns, who fell into a third-place tie with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North at 6-4. How can that be, you say, when he threw for 330 yards? It took 50 passes to achieve that misleading statistic. That’s how.
Yes, he was victimized by several drops, but most of his throws were either off target, late or not thrown with enough velocity. He struggled with his rhythm the entire game. The none-too-pleased fans, expecting much more from their first-place team, let him have it in the fourth quarter.
The Houston defensive line blunted just about every Cleveland attempt to start its offense. J. J. Watt proved again he is at least the best player on defense in the National Football League if not maybe the best player period.
The man did it all. Registered had three tackles for loss, had a strip sack, recovered a fumble, caused a fumble and caught the touchdown pass that put the Texans on the scoreboard in the opening quarter. Forget his two second-quarter roughing-the-kicker penalties, one of which was marginal at best. The man was a force.
The Browns took advantage of the second roughing call, scoring their only points of the afternoon on a 32-yard strike to Andrew Hawkins to draw even at 7-7 with 8:58 left in the second quarter.
Most of the afternoon, Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel wisely lined up Watt opposite Cleveland offensive right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who had a nightmarish game. When Watt lined up against left tackle Joe Thomas, which wasn’t often enough to suit Browns fans, he was relatively silent.
The Browns, who never owned the lead, played from behind once the Texans grabbed a 14-7 lead with 23 seconds left in the first half on a 20-yard strike from Mallett to tight end Garrett Graham, who broke a tackle at the 4-yard line.
As the game wore on, fans patiently waited for another of those dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks by the Browns after the Texans made it a two-score game on a Randy Bullock field goal in the third quarter.
But the real dagger was plunged by the Texans early in the fourth quarter, a not-so-subtle indication there was no way the Browns were going to win this one. Call it brazen, call it ballsy, call it a testosterone rush. Call it anything you want.
It turned out to be a microcosm of the game for both teams.
A Houston drive stalled at the Cleveland 38-yard line with 12:45 left in regulation. Too long for a Bullock field goal – he missed one in the third quarter from 52 yards – and too short a field for punter Shane Lechler.
What to do, what to do.
Initially, Bullock and the field goal unit went onto the field. Then Texans coach Bill O’Brien called a timeout. Why punt, he must have figured, when my guys are beating up on their guys? That makes no sense. Let’s play some big boy football.
So he yanked Bullock and sent Mallett back on the field with his offense for the fourth-and-3 play as if to challenge the Browns to “stop us if you can. We don’t think you can.” And they didn’t as Mallett drilled a bullet to Andre Johnson for a 10-yard gain against tight coverage by Haden.
The Texans got only three points (on Bullock’s second field goal) out of possession six plays later, but they took three more valuable minutes off the clock.
On this mid-November afternoon, a time of the NFL season when contenders and pretenders separate themselves from the pack as the playoffs loom in the distance, the Browns appear to have revealed themselves as pretenders after enjoying a week in the former category.
Not that the Texans are close to contender class, but the Browns played like anything but a first-place team Sunday when the opposite was the goal.