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Keys to the Game

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Keys to the Game: How the Browns can beat the Texans in Wild Card playoff game

The Browns will travel to Houston to face the Texans in the first round of the playoffs

Keys Wild Card 1.12

The Browns are back in the playoffs.

After finishing the regular season 11-6, clinching a playoff berth and claiming the fifth seed, they

will take on the Texans as the first game of Wild Card weekend on Jan. 13. It will be the second time during the 2023 season that the Browns will face the Texans, after they beat Houston 36-22 in Week 16.

So, let's look at three keys to Saturday's game.

Limit QB C.J. Stroud in the pass game

When the Browns faced Houston in Week 16, they did not see rookie QB C.J. Stroud at the helm of the Texans offense, as he was still in concussion protocol. This time around, Houston's offense will look different with Stroud at quarterback.

Through 15 games this season, Stroud has completed 319 of 499 passes for 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns. He's also limited his interceptions, as he only has thrown five this season. According to Pro Football Reference, Stroud has led the Texans to one fourth quarter comeback in Week 9 against the Buccaneers and executed three game-winning drives this season – against the Bucs, then the Bengals in Week 10 and the Colts in Week 18.

Yet, the Browns have proven just what they can be defensively during the regular season. They allowed 3,149 passing yards during the regular season, which is second in the league. They lead the league with 5.9 yards allowed per attempt and have forced 18 interceptions, which is third in the league. They have also sacked quarterbacks 49 times this season, which is sixth in the league. With heightened stakes in the playoffs, the Browns pass defense and pass rush could play an important role on Saturday.

"We're going to have to play tight coverage," DC Jim Schwartz said. "We're going to have to stay after him in the pass rush. We're going to have to limit run after the catch because he does a good job of giving his guys opportunities to run after the catch."

Defend against WR Nico Collins

Not only do the Browns have to be prepared for Stroud, but they also have to combat against his top target in the pass game in WR Nico Collins. Stroud targeted Collins 109 times during the regular season over 15 games. Collins finished the regular season with 80 receptions for 1,297 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Collins averaged 16.2 yards per reception in the regular season.

Cornerbacks coach Brandon Lynch said that Collins can stretch the field vertically, and the connection between Collins and Stroud allows for their explosive plays.

Yet, when the Browns faced the Texans in Week 16, their secondary found ways to limit his impact in the pass game with QB Case Keenum. Collins finished the game with four receptions for 18 yards and one touchdown. His longest catch of the day was seven yards.

"Big guy, great at the catch point, can run a bunch of routes, but just a big target," CB Greg Newsome II said. "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 him, and C.J. (Stroud) are one of the better duos in the league for sure."

Rely on QB Joe Flacco's arm in the pass game

On the flip side, offensively the Browns have an opportunity to use the pass game to their advantage against the Texans defense. During the regular season, the Texans allowed 4,334 total passing yards, which was 25th in the league.

Since Joe Flacco became the Browns starting quarterback in Week 13, the pass game excelled in the final five games of the regular season that he played. Flacco completed 123 of 204 passes for 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns. He distributed the ball to multiple pass catchers in each game, spreading out opposing defenses as they had to account for different receivers.

In the last meeting against the Texans, Flacco completed 27 of 42 passes for 368 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Yet, Flacco had ample time to throw in that first meeting, which could change on Saturday. OC Alex Van Pelt said earlier in the week that they have prepared like they have for each week to any potential changes the Texans pass rush could present with their blitz meetings, their blitz pickup responsibilities and in walk throughs.

"We'll try to push it at all three levels of the field, there's no question," Van Pelt said. "We've got to make them defend the whole field and his ability to throw accurately down the field helps us in that regard."

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