Round Two: An analysis of the Browns playoff catastrophe

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Sifting through the rubble of the Houston Texans’ 45-14 demolition of your Cleveland Browns last Saturday in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs …


It didn’t take long for Browns rent-a-quarterback Joe Flacco to go from hero to goat in the eyes of a lot of fans. After arriving in Cleveland fresh off his couch in New Jersey to rescue the Browns’ season in November, the 38-year-old former Super Bowl MVP was riding a wave of goodwill heading into the postseason — until that wave crashed spectacularly in Houston. Flacco’s two pick 6’s of 82 and 36 yards on consecutive drives in the third quarter turned a manageable 24-14 deficit into a game-set-match 38-14 hole in a span of two minutes.

In reality, however, neither interception was Flacco’s fault — at least not entirely. On the first, Browns right tackle James Hudson III whiffed badly attempting to block Texans defensive end Derek Barnett on an edge rush, allowing Barnett a free path to the quarterback from Flacco’s blind side. Barnett hit Flacco just as he tried to throw the ball away out of bounds, and the ball fluttered into the hands of cornerback Steven Nelson in the left flat at the Houston 18-yard line. The play was potentially a 10-point swing — at least — considering the Browns had just gotten within range of a long field goal attempt.

On the second interception, Browns tight end Harrison Bryant ran a poor route on fourth-and-2, turning his quick-out pattern in the right flat into more of a slow loop-and-stop pattern. The lazy route allowed Texans linebacker Christian Harris to cut underneath Bryant, make an easy pick on the run at the Browns’ 36 and score untouched.

So Hudson III and Bryant were every bit as responsible for the interceptions as Flacco.


Harris’ break on the ball gave him a head start toward the end zone before most of the Browns’ offense realized what had happened. But it’s mystifying how Nelson’s interception two minutes earlier resulted in an 82-yard return for a touchdown.

On the play, Nelson settled under the ball almost like he was fielding a punt, caught it and promptly went 82 yards untouched. It even looked like a punt return, with a wall of Texans defenders-turned-blockers escorting him down the sideline and into the end zone. Considering the lollipop nature of the pass thanks to Flacco getting hit as he threw, you’d think Nelson wouldn’t have had such an easy time of it as he headed downfield with the ball. But he did, with no Browns offensive player even coming close to tackling him. Some of that was due to the Texans’ blocking on the interception return, but most of the guys in orange helmets seemed to be spectators as soon as Flacco released the ball.

The Browns get an F for effort on that play.


Without Flacco, the 2023 Cleveland Browns don’t make the playoffs. He led the Browns to four wins in his five regular season starts, completing 60% of his passes for 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns. He threw for over 300 yards in each of those four victories, turning back the clock to his heyday with the Ravens.

He was here long enough to save the season — but he was also here long enough that we knew he was more Vinny Testaverde gunslinger than Bernie Kosar surgeon as a passer. Entering the playoffs, Flacco had thrown eight interceptions in his five starts with the Browns, so no one should have been surprised that he got picked off twice against the Texans.

But the loss wasn’t his fault.


It would be better if Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said he hadn’t watched a minute of film on Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Sadly, though, Schwartz and the Browns’ defensive staff certainly watched hours of Stroud film — then came up with what passed for a game plan Saturday in Houston. From what I could tell, the plan was this: give Stroud as much time as he needed in the pocket and hope he would be so confused by the Browns’ coverage schemes that he would routinely chuck the ball up for grabs against the vaunted Cleveland secondary.

Instead, Stroud, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State, became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game. He looked like Joe Montana in his prime, completing 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns against a Browns defense that led the NFL in several categories in the regular season.

The fact that Schwartz so grossly underestimated Stroud and came up with such an incompetent defensive game plan — that head coach Kevin Stefanski signed off on — is alarming. Stroud is having the best rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history, and anyone who followed his career as a Buckeye knows he is special. He’s poised, confident, reads defenses exceptionally well, gets rid of the ball on time and can make all the throws with pinpoint precision.

Buckeye Nation knew he was good in 2021, his first year as a starter when, after a rocky beginning to the season, he found his groove and improved exponentially throughout the campaign. But Buckeye fans didn’t realize how good Stroud really was until his historic afternoon in the Jan. 1, 2022 Rose Bowl, when he torched Pac-12 champion Utah by passing for 573 yards and six touchdowns in Ohio State’s dramatic 48-45 comeback victory.

Stroud finished the 2023 NFL regular season with 23 touchdown passes against just five interceptions — remarkable numbers for any quarterback, let alone a rookie. And he completed nearly 64% of his passes for 4,108 yards. The guy can play.

So it’s hard to fathom how Schwartz could possibly have thought it was a good idea to let Stroud sit in the pocket and slice the Browns’ defense to ribbons. The passive Browns defense didn’t record a sack or force a turnover against the Texans — not exactly the formula for success in a playoff game.


Stroud connected with tight end Brevin Jordan on a 76-yard catch-and-run to put Houston up 17-14 early in the second quarter — exactly one play after the Browns had taken a 14-10 lead on Flacco’s 11-yard TD pass to running back Kareem Hunt.

Several Browns defenders took bad angles on Jordan, who turned a seemingly harmless 4-yard reception in the right flat into a game-changing long touchdown, with Jordan outrunning the Cleveland defense down the sideline to the end zone.

The Browns were never the same after that play.


The Browns seemed to be out of gas in Houston, their gutsy push to make the playoffs without running back Nick Chubb and quarterback Deshaun Watson leaving them with nothing in the tank for the postseason. Four different players started at quarterback at one time or another during the regular season, and 38-year-old Joe Flacco had to shake off the mothballs after not playing for nearly a year to somehow get the Browns into the postseason. It’s almost as if they knew they had gone as far as they could go.

Despite the debacle in Houston, it was an important stepping-stone season for the Browns. They beat the 49ers and the Ravens, who very well could end up squaring off in the Super Bowl. They won several games in classic Kardiac Kids fashion, including a last-second 13-10 win at home over rival Pittsburgh. They dug deep and overcame injuries to key players that would have derailed the seasons of most teams — and the Browns themselves in years past.

Most importantly, they made the playoffs. Yes, the loss to the Texans was ugly, but it’s a minor miracle that the Browns were playing in that game in the first place. There was no magical postseason run to the Super Bowl this season, but at least they took that first step down the NFL’s yellow brick road.

And you’ve got to start somewhere.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.

  1. Enjoyed reading this “to the point” column by Mr. Harrdesty. As a lifetime follower of the Browns, I really was glad to see the success they had when Joe Flacco took over as quarterback. The playoff game was disappointing but it definitely wasn’t one person’s fault!! As we diehard fans say “Maybe next year!”

  2. Tom: Thanks so much for what you do. This 1942 model was born to a dad who insists we appear on the field in the black and white film footage that tracked the Browns into the first base dugout at Municipal Stadium on their way to the locker room after beating the Rams for the championship in 1950. We watched the game from under the Longines sign in the bleachers. In fact, we watched a lot of games from there. Today’s NFL does little to light me up. Success by the Browns is enjoyed even if I do not often watch. It lifts northeast Ohio’s spirits. My question about the season’s last game is how was pregame resting helpful? They not only rested. They spread and underlined how resting was getting them prepared. I have a couple of team photos from the 50’s which show six guys in dress suits. One of them was in ownershp. The other five were Paul Brown, Blanton Collier, Fritz Heisler and two others. Photos are not in front of me now. If any resting preparation was done by Otto, Mac, Dante Marion Gunner and the gang, I doubt that Coach Brown would have made it known. I doubt it ever occured. They certainly looked rested last week. Bill Simon

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