The Browns are in the thick of a playoff hunt, and Sunday's matchup against the Texans had implications for the postseason.
And yet, the Browns cruised to a 36-22 victory over the Texans, with a dominate performance through the air from QB Joe Flacco and WR Amari Cooper, and a stout defensive presence for a majority of the game.
The Browns notched their 10th win of the season, which is tied for their best start to a season since 1999. They also improved their road record to 3-4.
So, let's look at three takeaways from Sunday's critical win over the Texans.
WR Amari Cooper sets Browns franchise records
From the opening offensive drive on Sunday, to the final minutes of the game, it was a special day for Cooper.
On the first play of the game, Flacco threw a deep ball to Cooper for a 53-yard reception and set the Browns up for a touchdown by RB Jerome Ford. That reception helped Cooper break 1,000 receiving yards this season. Cooper also became the first Browns player to record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
"He was pretty special. He's a good one," HC Kevin Stefanski said. "I'm happy for Amari because he's a consummate pro. I mean, he's one of the best that I've ever been around. What he knows about this game, the way he sees this game, he's like a savant out there. And combine that with the route-running ability, he's one of this team's leaders. These guys love Amari and to see him come through is awesome."
But it didn't stop there. Cooper caught a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, which was the longest reception by a Browns player since Donovan Peoples-Jones had a 75-yard catch on Dec. 6, 2020. Cooper is also the first Brown to record two 50-yard receptions in a game since Travis Benjamin in 2015.
Then, on a fourth-and-7 with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter, Flacco found Cooper downfield and threw him the pass, which Cooper caught for the first down and a gain of 13 yards. However, it was also the reception that set another record in franchise history, as Cooper surpassed former WR Josh Gordon for the most receiving yards in a game by a Brown with 265 receiving yards. It was also the most by any NFL player this season.
"(OC Alex Van Pelt) told me that he needed 10 more yards for a Browns record," Flacco said with a laugh. "I didn't want to necessarily go out of my way to do it, but the situation kind of just made it."
Cooper finished the game with 11 receptions for a career-high 265 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Cooper now has 1,250 receiving yards on the season, which is the third-most by a Browns player in a season, just behind Braylon Edwards at 1,289 in 2007 and Josh Gordon with 1,646 yards in 2013.
"He's special," Flacco said. "I mean, we were able to get him open downfield a little bit, but he was also able to go up for some balls and just be strong through the catch. He's a special player."
Cooper and Flacco's connection
While the individual accolades from Cooper in Sunday's game speak for themselves, the connection that Cooper and Flacco have built over the last few weeks has played a critical factor in the Browns' success. It was on display once again against the Texans.
The Browns have relied on Flacco's ability to throw the ball deep and connect with his pass catchers. They've spread the ball around to at least eight pass catchers over the last few games.
Yet, Cooper and Flacco have built that quarterback-receiver connection, and it's paid off in recent weeks. Cooper finished Sunday's game with 15 targets and 11 receptions for 265 yards and two touchdowns. His longest of the day was his 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
"To be completely candid, I would attribute most of it to Joe," Cooper said. "He has an incredible feel for the game. He has an incredible arm. I think, obviously, with the relationship between a receiver and a quarterback, it's a symbiotic relationship. The best way to explain it is that we mesh well together."
And even with how strong it has looked in a few short weeks with Flacco at the helm of the offense, Flacco said they are still building chemistry and learning about one another on the field. But part of their success comes down to the skills of both Cooper and Flacco.
"When you have good football players, they know how to get open and you know how to throw them the ball," Flacco said. "It's just as simple as that. And there's some miscues that we've had because he takes his time with some things. So, there is still some getting used to on little things, the way he does little things differently. Overall, good receivers know how to get open in the spot that they are supposed to be on time and in rhythm of the play, and that helps a quarterback out."
How the Browns handled losing K Dustin Hopkins to a hamstring injury
The Browns have dealt with a slew of injuries throughout the season, and it continued once again in Week 16. However, it was a bit of unique situation when K Dustin Hopkins left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and was later ruled out. The Browns did not have another option for a backup kicker. P Corey Bojorquez came in for the kickoff in the second quarter, while S D'Anthony Bell kicked off once in the fourth quarter for 42 yards.
Hopkins had made two extra point attempts in the first half before he sustained the hamstring injury around the 12-minute mark.
The Browns did not attempt a field goal or an extra point after Hopkins left the game. They converted on two of their three 2-point conversion attempts. Rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson converted the first on a keeper, and Flacco connected with Cooper in the end zone on the third conversion attempt in the fourth quarter.
Stefanski said after the game that Hopkins would have an MRI on Monday.
"You don't love to not have a dependable guy like Dustin," Stefanski said. "We'll see how it shakes out in the next 24. I feel badly for him."