By Elwyn Henderson
Thanks to the Buffalo Bills winning on Saturday night, the Houston Texans came into their game Christmas Eve at NRG Stadium against the Cleveland Browns sitting in the final Wild Card spot with 3 games left in the regular season and controlled their destiny as far as making the playoffs was concerned. They knew if they won their final contests they would make the playoffs, but it would be hard due to starting quarterback CJ Stroud still in concussion protocol. He was replaced by Case Keenum who engineered an overtime win in Tennessee a week earlier. Wish as they might, it just wasn’t in the cards as the Texans fell 36-22 to the Browns in a game that was not nearly as close as the score might indicate.
Houston won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. As it turned out that was not a good decision. Ka’Imi Fairbairn’s opening kickoff was short to the Browns 5 and poor special teams play by Houston resulted in Joe Flacco bringing the Cleveland offense out for their first possession at their 41.
Thanks to a 53-yard pass to from Flacco to Amari Cooper it took just 4 plays and 1:42 for the Browns to move the 59 yards into the end zone and light up the scoreboard the first time. The score came on a 4-yard TD run by Jerome Ford with 13:18 left in the first quarter. Dustin Hopkins added the PAT and Cleveland had a quick 7-0 lead.
Houston moved the ball to near field before their first possession of the day stalled. Cameron Johnston punted the ball away on fourth down and Flacco brought his charges back out at their 11 for their second possession of the day.
The Houston defense gave up one first down and then the Browns had to punt on the next series. Corey Bojorquez kicked the ball down to the Houston 22 and after a return to the 34 the Texans began their second drive of the day, hoping for better results than they had on their opening possession. Thanks to a holding call it was a quick three-and-out and Johnston had to punt the ball for the second straight time and after a short return Flacco was back at work at the Browns 21.
Flacco led his unit up to the 46 where Houston forced a 4th down punt. The ball was fair caught by Robert Woods at the 8 but Cleveland was called for a 10-yard holding penalty prior to the kick so the ball was moved back to the 36 and Bojoquez punted the ball again, resulting in the Texans beginning their third possession at their 20.
Keenum managed to move the team up to the 48 before the offense stalled and Johnston had to punt once again. After a fair catch Flacco brought his offense out at the 10 for their next possession.
It didn’t take long for Flacco to lead his charges into the end zone once again. They moved the 90 yards in just 1:32 and 3 plays. The score came on a 75-yard TD pass to Amari Cooper with 12:04 left in the first half. Hopkins added the extra point and the Browns lead advanced to 14-0.
Hopkins ensuing kickoff was taken by Dameon Pierce at the at the Houston 2 and he didn’t stop until he went down the right sideline 98 yards for a TD with 11:51 left in the half. Fairbairn nailed the extra point, and just like that Houston cut the deficit in half, 14-7.
Fairbairn’s kickoff went out of the end zone for a touchback and the visitors went back on the offensive at their 25.
The Houston defense came to life after the score and forced their first three-and-out for the day. Robert Woods fair caught the punt at the Texans 33 and Keenum led the offense back out to try to get the ball in the end zone.
It wasn’t in the cards and after a Johnston punt and a 10-yard penalty on Houston Flacco and his troops began at midfield for their next possession.
Flacco led the visitors to another TD, moving the 50 yards in 6 plays that took 2:51 off the second quarter clock. The Score came on a 21-yard pass from Flacco toe David Njoku with 4:16 left in the first half. Thanks to a hamstring injury to kicker Dustin Hopkins, Dorian Thompson-Robinson lined up in the Wildcat formation to try for a 2-point conversion. He ran around the right side and jumped into the end zone for the successful try, putting Cleveland in total control and pushing the score to 22-7.
Things didn’t go well for Keenum and company and Johnston punted the ball down to the 13. The kick was returned up to the 19 and Houston was called for a 15-yard personal foul penalty, moving the ball up to the Browns 34 just as the 2-minute warning came.
The Texans came alive on defense when DeAndre Houston Carson intercepted Flacco at the Houston 16, giving the home team a chance to run their 2-minute offense and attempt to get some points off the theft.
Houston was moving the ball when a tipped pass was intercepted by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with 19 seconds left in the half. Flacco worked his magic and led the Browns into field goal range, but with Hopkins injured with the hamstring and unavailable he was forced to try a pass into the end zone from the Texans 18 with 5 seconds left until halftime. The pass was intercepted in the end zone by Derek Stingley as the half expired and Houston trailed 22-7 but they were set to receive the second half kickoff.
Houston managed a couple of first downs in their first possession of the second half but Johnston had to punt the ball away on the third series. The ball was fair caught at the Cleveland 6 and Flacco led his unit out for their first possession of the second half.
The Browns drove the final nail in the coffin on the possession, as if the Texans had any real chance before the drive. Flacco led his teammates on an unbelievable 18-play, 94-yard drive that took a whopping 9:49. The score came with 2:35 left in the third quarter on a 7-yard pass to Cooper. The try for 2 out of the Wildcat was not good, but the score moved to 28-7 with Houston showing almost no signs of life on either offense or defense.
The Texans kept the ball only 58 seconds on their next possession before a Keenum pass intended for Noah Brown was intercepted at the Cleveland 49 and Flacco was back on the offensive again.
Kareem Hunt got his team into the end zone again with a 1-yard TD run with 12:31 left in the game. A pass from Flacco to Cooper for the 2-point conversion was good, moving the score to 36-7. The drive was 10 plays, 51 yards and took 4:06. With that score NRG Stadium began to empty out as fans were disappointed that their team didn’t even make a game of the contest.
Davis Mills came in at quarterback on the next Houston possession. As was the case several times in the game, it was a quick three-and-out. After Johnston’s punt on fourth down Robinson came in at quarterback and the Browns began their next drive at the Houston 40. They were forced to punt and Houston got the ball back and sent Davis Mills in at quarterback to finish the game.
Mills drove the team down the field, hitting Nico Collins on a 5-yard TD pass with 6:08 left in the game. A try for 2 was good when Mills hit Collins, bringing the score to 36-15. The drive was 10 plays, 61 yards and took 1:58.
Fairbairn kicked onside after the TD and Jalen Pitre recovered for Houston at their 47 after the ball bounced backwards after having been touched by a Brown.
Mills drove the team down the field and the drive ended when he hit Andrew Beck on a 1-yard TD pass with 4:12 left in the game. Fairbairn hit the extra point and the gap closed to 36-22. The drive was 9 plays, 53 yards and took 1:56.
Another onside kick was recovered by the Browns and they went back on offense in Houston territory. Flacco came back in the game and led the team down to the Houston 17, but on a 4th down play the Texans defense got the job done and they took over with 2:06 remaining.
Mills moved the team down to midfield but a 4th down pass fell incomplete with 24 seconds left and the ball turned over on downs. Flacco took a knee and the clock ran out.
A very disappointed Coach DeMeco Ryans faced the media following the loss and was asked what led to the team not being able to secure a victory in a very important game.
“We’ve got to play better, and it starts with me, I’ve got to coach better. That’s the first thing I told our guys. For me, obviously it wasn’t good enough today and it all starts with me. That’s what I told our guys. I have to do better, and we have to play better, of course.”
They will get a chance to coach and play better next Sunday when the host the Tennessee Titans in their final home game of the 2023 season. Kickoff is set for noon at NRG Stadium. Hopefully, they can get a win and still be in the running for a wild card playoff spot.