The Browns will once again play the Texans in Houston this season, but this time with more significant stakes – win or go home. The Browns defeated the Texans 36-22 in Week 16, but Saturday's Wild Card playoff game will feature a different Texans team.
"Looking at this game, I know we recently played this team. As you know, they're different," HC Kevin Stefanski said. "C.J. Stroud's a great player. He's a great player, so we did not face him in the first one. There are injuries, the guys that are back on defense that they didn't have. You're a different team week to week, and certainly, this is a different team we're facing. But I know it's a very talented team."
The Texans were missing key contributors in Week 16 on offense and defense, starting with QB C.J. Stroud. Despite Stroud being a rookie, he has performed like one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL this season. He has completed 63.9 percent of his passes this season and thrown for 4,108 yards, which ranks eighth in the league. He threw 23 touchdowns and five interceptions during the regular season. He averages 273.9 yards per game this season.
"His ability to run and pass is what is going to make a difference in preparing for the Texans," LB Sione Takitaki said. "He's a rookie, but he proved he is special. He's a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year. You can learn from your mistakes since they didn't have Stroud the first time around. Having their guy will make it a bigger challenge for us."
Stroud will have a major impact on the Texans offense as his abilities will allow the playbook to open up, making his teammates better. One of the players he has a strong connection with is WR Nico Collins, who played in Week 16 against the Browns despite his calf injury. Collins and Stroud can be a threat to the Browns' defensive backs. Collins caught nine passes for 195 yards and scored a touchdown in Week 18, while Stroud completed 76.9 percent of his passes, throwing two touchdowns for 264 yards.
"Big guy, great at the catch point, can run a bunch of routes, but just a big target," CB Greg Newsome II on Collins. "So, he's a guy you got to be in phase with. You got to play physical with him, great receiver as well. And I think he and C.J. (Stroud) are two of the better duos in the league for sure."
The Browns should expect more than just changes in the Texans offense. In Week 16, they were without DE Will Anderson Jr., LB Blake Cashman or and DE Jonathan Greenard in their front seven. They all have been some of the best players on defense for the Texans this season, and their return to the defensive line can boost their success as a defense.
Anderson, drafted with the third pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, had 42 tackles and five sacks in 13 games entering Week 16. Anderson returned to action in Week 17 and played again in Week 18, recording two sacks and three tackles in the final two games of the regular season.
Cashman entered Week 16 leading the Texans in tackles with 85. He returned to action in Weeks 17 and 18 and has 105 tackles this year. Greenard sprained his ankle against the Browns and has been out.
Greenard has had a breakout season under HC DeMeco Ryans, as he only had one sack last season, but this season he has 12.5 sacks. He also has 52 tackles and 15 tackles for a loss.
"This team that we are playing this Saturday isn't the same team we saw a few weeks ago," TE David Njoku said. "They are going to bring their A-game. They are getting a few guys back, that's why it's a different team. They are a very talented group on offense and defense. But we are a very talented group as well. The best team will come out on top."