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NFL playoffs: Three things to watch for in Browns-Texans on Super Wild Card Weekend

Cleveland Browns
2023 · 11-6-0
Houston Texans
2023 · 10-7-0

After a two-year absence, the Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs, filling a familiar role of wild-card participant despite owning a record that matched two division winners. They're heading to a place they've already visited, Houston's NRG Stadium, which is hosting its first playoff game since the 2019 season.


Houston and Cleveland will forever be connected for the blockbuster trade they pulled off that sent Deshaun Watson to the Browns in exchange for significant draft capital. The Texans still have one more Browns first-round pick to spend in April. None of that matters now, though, because Watson has been unavailable since Week 11, and the playoff berths mean that pick won't land in the top 10.


The rest, though, matters a whole lot. The NFL's last two expansion teams (Cleveland returned to the league in 1999, while Houston joined as the 32nd team in 2002) will meet for a second time in the 2023 season, and this time, the result means much, much more. A 16-year gap exists between the 38-year-old Joe Flacco and rookie sensation C.J. Stroud, but both will be expected to be at the top of their games Sunday. Expect fireworks, folks, because neither of these teams were supposed to be here -- and they certainly aren't ready to go on vacation.

1) C.J. Stroud makes his playoff debut. Stroud's rookie season has been nothing short of phenomenal. He's the likely Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and has led a shocking turnaround in Houston, formerly the home of teams with only dreams of the postseason. Stroud will live that dream Saturday, less than a year after the Texans made him the No. 2 overall pick of the draft, and brings with him a handful of notable numbers set in 2023, with his 4,108 passing yardage total ranking third among all rookie quarterbacks in NFL history. Houston is a significantly better team with Stroud at the controls, but it will be fascinating to see if he can keep it going against the NFL's top-ranked defense in a high-pressure situation. Fortunately for the Texans, Stroud's time at Ohio State prepped him for the spotlight.

2) January Joe looks to keep the magic going. Fresh off the couch, the 38-year-old Joe Flacco has strung together an incredible month, throwing for 300-plus yards in each of his last four games. He's only the third quarterback to enter the playoffs on a four-plus-game streak of 300-plus yards, joining Tom Brady and Drew Brees in exclusive company. And since he's joined the Browns, Flacco leads the NFL with 323.2 passing yards per game. All of this sets up for a massive boom-or-bust scenario, and their opponent has already seen the flash from a Flacco explosion in a 368-yard performance in a Week 16 win over the Texans. Can Houston prevent the Browns from dropping another bomb on them at NRG Stadium? Or will Flacco Fever -- which is running rampant in Cleveland right now -- continue spreading throughout the NFL with another Browns win?

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3) The coach of the year showdown. The debate has been rightfully hot when it comes to this award. Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-6 finish despite starting five different quarterbacks and losing his top signal-caller twice during the season. DeMeco Ryans, meanwhile, has orchestrated a turnaround most everyone never saw coming, resurrecting the Texans and turning them into a featured star of Super Wild Card Weekend. Stefanski has a playoff win under his belt as head coach and is 1-0 in prior meetings with Ryans and the Texans, but that game isn't comparable to what his Browns will face this weekend because Stroud didn't play. Ryans, a former NFL linebacker and defensive coordinator, hasn't received consistent play from his defense, but knows it's loaded with hungry dudes ready to make plays. Unfortunately, voters already submitted their ballots for NFL Honors, meaning this game won't influence the final outcome. But it sure will be fun to watch two of the NFL's best stories face off in the postseason.

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