LANDOVER, Md. — The Browns won, 24-10, over the Commanders on Sunday at FedEx Field, grabbing their third win in their last five games and advancing their record to 7-9.
Here are three takeaways from the victory:
1. Watson shows 'what this future can hold'
The Browns finally saw what they've been looking for from Deshaun Watson and the offense in a crucial, game-winning three-drive sequence to start the second half.
For the first time since Watson became the starting QB in Week 13, the Browns strung together consecutive touchdown drives that were built by his ability to make sound decisions with the ball, extend plays and operate the offense to perfection. Watson finished the game with just nine completions on 18 pass attempts for 169 yards, but he looked like the QB the Browns envisioned when they traded for him in March once the touchdown drives began.
It all started to click on a third-and-5 play in the third quarter when Watson took a shotgun snap, turned to his left and fired a strike past the first-down marker to WR Amari Cooper. Cooper caught the ball near the sidelines and made Commanders CB Kendall Fuller miss his tackle before turning upfield. He remained untouched for a 46-yard touchdown.
The touchdown was a good start, but the offense still faced their biggest question of the week: Can they do it again?
In the three previous games where Watson had manufactured a touchdown, the answer had been no. The Browns entered Sunday with just one touchdown in each of their last games, and the success of Week 17 was always going to about whether Watson and Co. could cross the goal-line multiple times — and, of course, win the game.
It didn't take long for them to reach that next step. On the next drive, Watson delivered arguably his best drive yet with the Browns on a 12-play, 89-yard sequence that featured a 26-yard completion from Watson to Cooper on a third-and-9, a 21-yard completion to TE David Njoku on second-and-19 and a 13-yard touchdown pass to WR Donovan Peoples-Jones — a play head coach Kevin Stefanski and Watson both called Watson's best pass of the game.
"The DPJ (play) was really good because that was a red zone possession," Watson said. "That was a possession where it was a back-side read, and everything on the front-side was developing. I read the coverage right. That was something we worked on all week, and they knew they would be in that. Pre-snap, I knew I was going to 11, and it opened up just like we wanted to."
The Browns led 17-7 by that point and put the game away with another touchdown on the next drive. Watson went back to Cooper on a perfectly placed pass that Cooper caught when no Commanders defenders were around him, and he was able to beat S Derrick Forrest in a race to the pylon for a 33-yard score.
Cooper was the Browns' leading receiver with 105 yards, and he grabbed them all on just three catches. He didn't catch a pass until his first touchdown, but he ended the game with his greatest performance yet since Watson became the starter.
"I know it was only three catches, but it was three big catches," Watson said. "I know Amari, he's still trying to get healthy, but today was a good day to be able to, especially for the start of 2023 and what the future is going to hold for the Cleveland Browns, it was good to see that happen."
Watson's second-half was a major rebound from a lackluster first half where he completed just three of eight passes for 23 yards. The Browns struggled to find any offensive momentum, trailed 7-3 at halftime and faced plenty of big questions about how they'd respond.
Watson answered them all — and showed how potent the Browns can be now that he's rediscovered his footing in the NFL.
"That was the potential of what the future can hold," he said again.
2. Defensive dominance started with takeaways
The takeaways just kept coming for a defense that has been as good as any around the league in the last five weeks.
For the sixth-straight game, the Browns held their opponent to 23 or less points, and it all started with three big punches to QB Carson Wentz on the first three drives of the game.
On Wentz's second pass of the day, CB Denzel Ward leapt into the air and placed both hands on the ball for his third interceptions of the season and second in the last three weeks. The next drive ended with a turnover-on-downs when Commanders RB Jonathan Williams was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on a fourth-and-1.
S Grant Delpit capped the perfect start to the game with another interception, capturing the ball as he dove across the Commanders' burgundy "W" logo at midfield and forcing Wentz to pay on a risky deep-ball pass attempt.
"He kind of just hung it up for me," Delpit said with a smile. "Just trying to make a play, and I was able to go get it."
Delpit added his second interception of the game on another deep-ball pass from Wentz to the end zone in the fourth quarter, which gave him the team-lead for interceptions this season.
The defense overall, though, has forced a remarkable 11 takeaways in the last five games, grabbing at least one in all five. The streak followed a three-game stretch where they snagged no takeaways and has highlighted the improvements the unit has established following a disappointing start to the season.
"You've got to make the plays that come to you, if they do come to you" Delpit said. "I think we did that today. That's what all great defenses (do) — they get takeaways, so we need to build that into next year and continue that."
The Browns celebrate after a win over the Washington Commanders on January 1, 2023 at FedEx Field.
3. A big one awaits in Pittsburgh
A win has already amplified the excitement for the final game of the season next week in Pittsburgh.
The Browns could have an opportunity to be a playoff spoiler to their divisional rival Steelers, who will still be in the playoff hunt if they beat the Ravens in Week 17 on Sunday Night Football.
The players, of course, would cherish that opportunity. But even if the Steelers aren't in playoff contention, it'd still be a big game for the Browns as they look to end the season with a win and go into the offseason with momentum and confidence that they'll be a better, playoff-contending team in 2023.
"It's huge for us," DE Myles Garrett said. "No one wants to end on an L. We play to win, always. It doesn't matter for our chances, but they have some chances left, I believe, and we're going to try to erase those if we can."