Wild Card weekend gets started with an AFC matchup between two teams who missed the playoffs last season and already met once in the 2023 regular season.
The Cleveland Browns (11-6) visit the Houston Texans (10-7), having to play on the road despite their superior record as the Texans are division winners. Houston holds the fourth seed in the AFC, while the Browns are the fifth seed as the top Wild Card team.
The Texans are in the playoffs for the first time since they reached the divisional playoffs after the 2019 season, while the Browns are making their first playoff appearance since 2020.
Houston's quarterback at that time was Deshaun Watson, whose mid-season shoulder injury with Cleveland this campaign set the Browns on a wild path that has led to veteran Joe Flacco leading their march to the playoffs.
The Browns used their fifth starting quarterback of the season when resting Flacco and the majority of their starters in last week's meaningless loss to the Bengals but they had won their four previous games to get into the playoffs and will be out to repeat their win over the Texans from the regular season on Saturday.
|Cleveland Browns @ Houston Texans
|NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas
|4:30 PM ET, Saturday January 13
|How to watch
|Browns -2, Texans +110 ML
This matchup features two of the leading candidates for the NFL Coach of the Year award.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has already won the accolade once, for taking the team to the playoffs in his first year with the team in 2020. If he receives a second honor, it would be due to the way he has steered the team to the postseason despite a stream of setbacks that would have proved too much for most clubs around the league.
The major early blow was the loss of star running back Nick Chubb to a devastating knee injury in the second game of the season, and the team have also lost their top three offensive tackles, safeties Grant Delpit and Rodney McLeod and linebacker Anthony Walker. In a few big games, they have been without key players such as cornerback Denzel Ward and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
The quarterback position has been the most fluid, though, with the team finding ways to win games with Watson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, PJ Walker and Flacco, plus recent signing Jeff Driskel who started at Cincinnati last week. Watson had looked to have finally shaken off the rust and an earlier injury to play his best game for the Browns when he was injured in the win over the Ravens.
Flacco became the first Browns QB this season to make more than three consecutive starts in Week 16, showing the turmoil that Stefanski has had to overcome.
Houston's DeMeco Ryans would also be a worthy winner having done exactly what Stefanski did three years ago by turning around a struggling team to take them to the playoffs in his first season.
The Texans went 3-13-1 last year but have won seven more games this time around thanks to their emerging young players on both sides of the ball.
While quarterback CJ Stroud and defensive end Will Anderson Jr. were expected to be elite performers after being taken second and third overall in last year's draft, Ryans has also been able to get top-level results from now-injured third-round rookie Tank Dell, while Nico Collins, a third-round pick in 2021, has had a breakout year and leads the team in receiving yards with 1,297 having had no more than 481 in each of his first two seasons.
On Christmas Eve, these teams played each other in the same venue that will host Saturday's clash. The Browns ran out convincing winners in the December 24 game by a score of 36-22.
They had been favorites for that game with similar odds to this postseason meeting, and Cleveland gave their spread backers few worries as they raced into a 36-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and were even able to take their starters out of the game with the outcome decided. The Texans offense had not even scored a point at that stage, with their only points coming from a 98-yard kickoff return by running back Dameon Pierce.
It was not a great day for the Browns' special teams overall as both kicker Dustin Hopkins and punter Corey Bojorquez were injured in the game, resulting in the Browns going for it on fourth down for the rest of the game and attempting two-point conversions when they scored touchdowns.
The star of the show was Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper, who set a new team record with 265 receiving yards as Flacco passed for 368 yards and three touchdowns.
The Texans did not have their starting quarterback Stroud that day due to injury, instead using a mix of Case Keenum and Davis Mills, but neither was effective against the top-ranked Cleveland defense.
The Browns also beat the Texans last season, again at NRG Stadium, when they won 27-14 in Watson's first game back since being traded from Houston to Cleveland.
The Browns have been making NFL fans sit up and take notice with their positive offensive play since Flacco got up off his couch to rescue their season.
While Cooper is their top weapon, he has missed the two games since the win over the Texans due to a heel issue, although he is expected to be available on Saturday.
Tight end David Njoku has stepped up in his place and has made at least six catches in each of his last four appearances for 373 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Flacco has -110 odds to pass for more than 267.5 yards in the game, while Cooper is +130 and Njoku is +200 to score a touchdown anytime
Houston has had low points this season, such as becoming one of only two teams to lose to the Carolina Panthers. The Texans struggled against the stronger defensive teams this season, with heavy losses to the Browns, Jets and Ravens.
The Browns can expect Houston's best shot on Saturday, and the Texans can prepare after already having a first-hand look at a Stefanski game plan in the first game.
The Texans did a good job of restricting the Browns' running game in the first meeting, so they can concentrate on stopping the flow of passes to Cooper this time. Perhaps Ryans will draw something up to bait Flacco into mistakes, as he has been careless with the ball at times and thrown eight interceptions in five games including two against Houston.
With strong coaches on each sideline and both QBs healthy, this game will likely be a closer matchup than the one on December 24.