Browns overachieved in 2023, but being embarrassed in playoff stings | Jeff Schudel

Jan. 13—The Browns gave us an amazingly fun ride in 2023, overcoming injury after injury to qualify for the playoffs. Unlike after a thrill on a Cedar Point roller coaster, though, they have to wait seven months to get back in line. And then there is no guarantee they will get back on the ride again.

The Browns became the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lose its starting quarterback, starting running back plus both starting tackles and still make the playoffs. But getting smashed by the Texans, 45-14, in the wild-card game in Houston stings because the players who should have carried the Browns to the second round of the playoffs failed.

"We picked a bad day to have a bad day," Coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters while making sure to compliment the Texans.

I nicknamed Myles Garrett Mr. October a couple of years ago for a reason. He had one sack in the last seven games of the 2023 regular season and was invisible — except for two offsides penalties — on Jan. 13 in the biggest game of the season for the Browns. He and the rest of the defense failed to pressure Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud, and because of that Stroud threw three touchdown passes in the first half. He should have thrown one more before halftime, but he overthrew wide-open Nico Collins inside the 10-yard-line.

"This is the most painful loss of my career," Garrett told reporters. "They made plays on every mistake we made. We were outcoached, undermanned and outgunned. Speaking as a defensive player, I know we could have executed better."

The Browns led 7-3 and 14-10 after two touchdowns scored by Kareem Hunt. After the first touchdown, the Texans regained the lead on a four-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Stroud to Collins. After the second Hunt touchdown, the Texans needed only one play to retake the lead for good when Stroud hooked up with tight end Brevin Jordan on a 76-yard pass play.

Stefanski wasn't just being a good sport when he credited the Texans. The Browns beat the Texans, 36-22, on Christmas Eve, after leading 36-7 in the fourth quarter. The Texans watched the film from the first game and made adjustments so the outcome would not be the same. It was as if the two teams changed roles.

Stroud was in concussion protocol and did not play in the Dec. 24 game. That was one difference from the first game but not the only one.

The Texans did not pressure Joe Flacco in the regular season meeting. Houston coach DeMeco Ryans emphasized that would have to change in the rematch. The Texans also knew they had to neutralize Amari Cooper. Cooper caught 11 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns in the first game. He caught four passes for 59 yards in the wild-card game.

The Texans sacked Flacco four times. They made James Hudson look like a third-string right tackle, which he is, and made left tackle Geron Christian look like a player who began the season on the practice squad of another team (Chiefs), which he did.

"It's disappointing the way it ended," Flacco told reporters. "When the city and team embraces you the way they have, you definitely want to do big things, mostly for your teammates because those guys have been incredible.

"But it's hard not to feel the way the city rallied around the group of guys in that locker room. That's another reason why we love the NFL. It's the fans."

Flacco, such a storybook hero for leading the Browns to four straight wins in December after being signed on Nov. 20, threw crippling pick-sixes on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, turning a 24-14 hole into a 38-14 canyon. He was pressured on both plays. He said he was trying to throw the ball away on the first one, but he didn't have enough velocity to throw it out of bounds. The other was thrown on fourth down.

After everything Flacco did, it is a shame he will be remembered for two back-breaking interceptions that snuffed out the chance to advance. Because in reality, he probably won't get a chance to redeem himself in a Browns uniform next season.