NFL

AUTHOR: Star Sports Content

STAR NFL PREVIEW Sun: Cleveland Browns @ Houston Texans

Both teams are involved in the crazy race for the AFC playoff places which still involve (realistically) 12 of the teams within the conference.

As things stand the Browns (9-5) are the No5 seed while the Texans (8-6) are sitting just outside the playoff places in 8th place so this is a big game in that particular race and a win either way will have a big influence on where these two sides are positioned heading into next week. The Browns can jump to 99% to make the playoffs if they win (80% in a loss), and they actually have seven different clinching scenarios (largely revolving around Denver and Pittsburgh losing) if they get the victory.

One of the big talking points around the game was whether the Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud who has a magnificent first year in the NFL would clear concussion protocols which saw him missing from the Texans 19-16 overtime win against the Titans last week. Stroud was knocked out of the game late on when Houston were well beaten by the Jets 30-6. Case Keenum has stepped in and by a strange quirk of fate he now faces once again an old foe in Joe Flacco and it’s nine years since the two faced each other only this time Flacco was playing for the Ravens.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and Flacco, who wasn’t even playing at the start of the season now finds himself at the helm of a Browns offence that to a certain extent looks rejuvenated having lost their main QB Deshaun Watson for the season. Flacco who was the 18th pick in the 2008 draft has already thrown seven TD’s and passed for 939 yards. Flacco is the fourth QB to start for the Browns, who are the seventh team in the Super Bowl era to win with four QBs in the same season. Last week, in his third start for the Browns, Flacco passed for a season-high 374 yards – 212 in the fourth quarter – in the comeback win.

With Stroud at quarterback the Texans have exceeded expectations this season already but they didn’t look as dynamic or efficient on offence with the veteran Case Keenum at the controls. Keenum threw for 229 yards with a touchdown and an interception last week in his first action of the season and his first start since the 2021 season but it has to be said that he has led Houston to three straight victories as he was at the helm for the last two games, both victories at the end of last season.

The Browns and Texans have been intertwined in the past few years because of the controversial trade of Watson, who starred for four seasons with Houston. Cleveland has won three straight in the series although the Texans took five in a row prior to their recent decline in this fixture.

Like the Texans, the Browns have been hit hard by major injuries. Last week, they lost both starting tackles, a safety and two defensive linemen for the season.

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The fact that their offensive line has been subject to plenty of change and several key injuries plus the addition of Flacco has been one of the major reasons why we have seen a shift in offensive approach from the Browns to the pass over the run. Since Flacco took over as the starting QB three games ago there have been three consecutive games with 44 pass attempts or more.

On the ground that facet of the game for the Browns looks to have descended into a three-man committee with Jerome Ford just about keeping control of the backfield over Kareem Hunt with Pierre Strong mixing in for what is basically left over. The pure rushing matchup is about as difficult as they come against a Texans defence ceding just 3.4 yards per carry (second) behind just 1.02 yards allowed before contact (second) to opposing backfields this season. The Texans have shut down rushing attacks all season but have allowed the NFL’s eighth-most catches to running backs (73). Ford is averaging 5.1 targets over his last five games. Hunt has got nearly all of the goal-line and short-yardage work for this backfield, but he is averaging 36.9 total yards per game since coming back to the Browns. He has topped 50 yards twice over 12 games.

The introduction of Flacco has really made the Browns offence a pass-first one with TE David Njoku and WR Amari Cooper the chief beneficiaries of that operational shift. Flacco has thrown for 311 and 374 yards over the past two weeks but he will need to avoid the interceptions, as he’s thrown five in his three starts and turnovers can often be the difference especially in a tight game which this is expected to be. Houston can defend the run well while being objectively weaker against the pass, so Cleveland should attack them through the air and remain aggressive here.

Flacco is involved in one Star Sports Special that appeals where he features along with the Kyler Murray (Cardinals) and Tagovailoa (Dolphins) at 5-2 to throw 6+ TD passes.

As highlighted it’s very much been Cooper and Njoku who are the main targets for Flacco over the past two games the duo have combined to account for 44 targets on 89 total pass attempts from Flacco, good for a tidy 49.4 percent combined target market share. To put it mildly the passing offence of the Browns is a condensed one. Both Cooper and Njoku exceeded 100 yards in Week 15’s win over the Bears. This match looks one that could well favour Njoku yet again given that the Houston defence allow the NFL’s second-most catches (91) and third-most yards (875) to tight ends. Njoku looks a fair play at 10-11 to exceed his receiving yards line of +49.5 (10-11) at Star Sports and 2-1 on the same player to score a TD looks a reasonable offer also.

Cooper in the three Joe Flacco starts has a combined stat line of 14/220/1 and he too has an attractive looking receiving yards line with the +60.5 (10-11) with Star Sports looking to be a little shorter than it should be and the “over” is certainly in-play.

There have been plenty of plaudits for the Browns defence but on the road they have looked vulnerable allowing a league-worst 30.7 points per game and 345.3 yards in six road games, versus only 13.1 points and 197.9 yards at home. Given it’s only a small sample we have to be careful about drawing too many hard and fast conclusions but it does show that the Texans even with Keenum at the controls can and probably will score points. It’s hard to ignore the Browns allowing the Rams (36), Broncos (29), and Ravens (31) to pile up points the last three times they left Cleveland. Cleveland road games are averaging a league-high 54.8 combined points per game and every Cleveland game on the road has gone over the game total, the only team in the league to have every road game go over.

With the Browns fielding one of the best cornerback trios in the NFL via Martin Emerson Jr., Denzel Ward, and Greg Newsome II, and with Keenum in at quarterback the ground game may be the Texans best route to moving the ball and scoring in this game. It now looks as though Devin Singletary has the backfield in his grasp now as he had 30 touches last week which he turned into 170 yards from scrimmage and almost totally negated Dameon Pierce from the equation. That is the second time over the past five weeks that Singletary has had 30 touches in a game. No other running back can say that this season.

The Texans lost one of their excellent young wide receivers when Tank Dell broke his leg a few weeks ago but they will be pleased to have Nico Collins back in the fold although his health and fitness remain questionable. If Collins can play then he faces a tough matchup alongside fellow wide receiver Noah Brown who worked as the lead wideout last Sunday and caught 8-of-11 targets for 82 yards and his second touchdown of the season. TE Dalton Schultz after missing two games with a hamstring injury to his full-time role in the offence but the Browns are a tough draw for tight ends, ranking fourth in yards allowed per target to the position (6.3 yards) although fellow TE’s Evan Engram (11/95/2) and Cole Kmet (5/23/1) banked lucrative results against Cleveland over the last two weeks.

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The saving grace for the Texans are those Browns road splits on defence and it’s to be expected that the excellent Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik will use what he has at the skill positions on offence to create opportunities. The Texans have scored at least 20 points in every home game this year, and they are 6-2 when they score at least 20 points.

The game itself with the pass heavy nature of the Browns offence and their propensity to turn the ball over give this game sneaky points potential and bucking the trend and going over the points may be the way go in a game that has enormous AFC playoff implications.

ANDY RICHMOND


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PROFIT/LOSS (DEC 2023): LOSS -6.69 points


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