With just five weeks to go until the postseason, the 2018 NFL season has reached its fever pitch. Especially in the AFC, there is a mad dash for the six postseason spots, with over half the conference within just two games of the second Wild Card spot.
One of the teams currently “in the hunt” is the AFC North’s Cleveland Browns, at 4-6-1. The Browns are performing far better than their past two seasons, but they still have some work to do. In order to make the playoffs, they may have to win out through the season’s final five games. In order to do that, they’ll have to beat the red-hot Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
The Texans have won eight in a row after starting 0-3 on the season. Currently leading the AFC South, the Texans have a high chance to make the playoffs, and an outside shot at a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. But, outside of their respective league standings, the Browns and Texans practically mirror each other.
On offense, the Browns and Texans are both on the rise. For years, the Texans seemed to have everything but their quarterback. DeAndre Hopkins is a stud wide receiver who can catch anything thrown in his vicinity. Lamar Miller is a solid piece at running back who can also show explosiveness at seemingly any moment. All in all, Houston is one of the most complete and balanced teams in the league.
For years, the Browns couldn’t get anything going offensively, on the basis that they had no quarterback. 29 men stepped up to the plate to be Cleveland’s signal-caller, and 29 men struck out. But then up walked rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, and he’s been everything Cleveland fans have wanted and more since his debut.
The main matchup here is, of course, Baker Mayfield against the vaunted Texans defense. Mayfield has excelled in the past three games, but he’s also faced three of the worst defensive units in the NFL. Kansas City, Atlanta, and Cincinnati all have putrid defenses, and while Mayfield did carve them up, you can argue that’s what he’s supposed to do.
This will be a test, and possibly a swinging point, throughout the game. Over the past month, the Browns have shown that if Mayfield can get momentum on his side, he starts to heat up, almost like a three-point shooter. He’s been scorching hot over the past couple of games, and if he can get it going again, it might be a long game for the Texans.
But, that’s where the defensive unit comes in for Houston, and as far as defenses go, they’re one of the best in the NFL. Anchored down by star defensive ends J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans love to get after the quarterback. The Browns offensive line has a tall task ahead of them, and Pro Bowl guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler will need to be on high alert all game.
Flipping over to the Texans, they finally got their guy under center in 2017 in the form of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Watson was one of the most prolific passers in college football history, and the Texans actually traded with the Browns on draft night to send Watson to Houston.
Since then, the Watson to Hopkins connection has become one of the NFL’s most explosive quarterback-receivers duos. The Browns’ secondary will have a hard time containing Watson and Hopkins, who will likely be guarded by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward for most of the game.
With just how much these teams mirror each other, it’s easy to see how easily this could become a rivalry. Both the Browns and Texans are on the rise in the AFC, and Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson could become an epic quarterback battle for the next decade. This is, more than likely, just the first installment.
Betting Info (via OddsShark)
Point Spread: Houston -4.5
Moneyline: Cleveland +175, Houston -210
For as confident as the Browns are coming into this game, I’m just not sure if they’re ready to compete with Houston’s firepower on either side of the ball. Greg Robinson has a tough job ahead of him, guarding J.J. Watt, and the defensive line play from either team might actually swing the momentum of this game.
I think that despite the impact the defenses might have, this one could become a duel between Watson and Mayfield. Defenses will help, as both of these teams’ secondaries are turnover-happy, but the quarterbacks will rule.