Deshaun Watson will take the field for the first time in nearly 700 days on Sunday as his Browns travel to Houston to take on the Texans, his former team. Cleveland has won the last two meetings between the two teams, snapping a five-game Houston win streak, but much has changed since then. Three of those Houston wins featured Watson in a Texans uniform, and last season's meeting featured Baker Mayfield, Davis Mills, and Tyrod Taylor all under center.
Cleveland is sitting at 4-7 after a 23-17 overtime victory at home over Tampa Bay last Sunday. The Browns tied the game with 32 seconds left in regulation and won it on a three-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb with only 19 seconds remaining in the extra period. Chubb led the way with 116 yards on 26 carries and Jacoby Brissett managed the game well enough to keep his team in it. He finished 23-for-37 for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also was sacked four times, but it was his 45-yard completion to Amari Cooper that set up Chubb to win it in overtime. The defense did its job by harassing Tom Brady (29-of-43, 246 yds., 2 TDs, 3 sacks) all game long and holding the Buccaneers under 100 rushing yards. The Browns also stiffened when needed, stopping Tampa twice in overtime and keeping the Bucs scoreless over their last seven drives.
It's been a miserable season for Houston, which has the NFL's worst record at 1-9-1 and has lost six in a row. Last week it was a 30-15 loss in Miami in a game that wasn't even that close. The Texans trailed 30-0 at halftime and were facing backups for the final frame. Kyle Allen made his first start of the season in place of Davis Mills and went 26-for-39 for 215 yards and a touchdown, but also two interceptions. Houston's defense did hold the Dolphins to 66 rushing yards on 26 carries and recorded five sacks, but otherwise, it was another awful effort by the team that seems destined to have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Cleveland (4-7) at Houston (1-9-1)
Three Things to Watch
1. Deshaun Watson's return
This will be Watson's first regular-season game action since Jan. 3, 2021, when he threw three touchdown passes in a 41-38 loss to the Tennessee Titans in what ended up being his last game as a Houston Texan. His return from an 11-game suspension after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct will be the focus of this game, especially considering who his first opponent is and where this game is taking place.
On the field, the Texans actually have a middle-of-the-road pass defense, checking in at 17th at 216.4 yards allowed per game. But that's because Houston has been absolutely awful against the run (more on that shortly). Watson has no doubt been waiting for this moment for a while and has plenty to prove, but given the long layoff, it will be interesting to see what game plan head coach Kevin Stefanski puts together and whether he'll ease his quarterback in slowly or show him off early.
Cleveland is 15th in passing offense at 222.5 yards per game, but the 12 touchdown passes are tied for 23rd (with three other teams including the Texans), so there's certainly room for improvement there. And this is one of the reasons why the team invested so much to acquire Watson in the first place. But since it's been more than a year since he's played in a real NFL game, it's unrealistic to expect him to fill up the stat sheet right away, even against the Texans' defense.
2. Browns need to stay grounded
Putting the extenuating circumstances aside for a moment, this is an ideal matchup for Watson to make his Cleveland debut. One of the reasons why Houston has won just one game all season is because the defense is giving up nearly 170 rushing yards per game, the worst mark in the NFL. That's 15 yards more per game than the team ranked 31st (Green Bay). And this also is after the Texans held the Dolphins to just 66 yards on the ground. Outside of that game and in Week 4 when the Chargers ran for 81 yards (while throwing for 338), Houston has given up 136 or more rushing yards in its nine other contests, including 314 to Tennessee (Week 8).
This makes the Browns a horrible matchup for the Texans, as Cleveland is at its best when Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are wearing down defenses. The Browns enter this game fifth in the league at 154.4 rushing yards per game and have scored the second-most touchdowns on the ground (18) this season. So do you see why Watson doesn't have to let it rip right away?
3. Can the Texans Pierce the Browns?
Dameon Pierce was a great story early on in the season for the Texans, but he's managed just 16 yards on 15 carries the last two weeks in losses to the Commanders and Dolphins. Pierce's previous low was 33 yards against the Colts back in September. He might be hitting a rookie wall, or he may be having issues with teams stacking the box against the run and forcing the quarterback to beat them through the air. Cleveland has an exploitable run defense that's allowing 156.4 yards per game on the road. Can Pierce find some room though?
I wish I saw one positive thing coming out of Houston because I think the Texans will be highly motivated for this game on Sunday. The problem is that they've scored just three points in the first halves of their last three contests combined. I think it'll be close, but Cleveland will get the win. Houston will make this interesting at some point though because the Texans don't want to get embarrassed by the guy who wanted to leave their team.
Prediction: Browns 23, Texans 16
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
*Price as of publication.