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Browns' surprise season crashes in playoffs, but team convinced future bright with healthy QB Watson

CLEVELAND (AP) — With a wild-card blowout win secured, Houston's rowdy crowd let loose, serenading rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud with “M-V-P!” chants after his stirring playoff debut.

Over on Cleveland's sideline, the QB the Texans traded watched in street clothes.

This wasn't what Deshaun Watson or the Browns envisioned.

None of it.

On Saturday, the team's inspiring run to the AFC playoffs despite losing Watson with a fractured shoulder in November, plugging holes all season because of numerous injuries to key players and rolling behind 38-year-old QB Joe Flacco over the final month, ended with a final rush of pain — a stinging 45-14 loss to the Texans.

It was a tough finish for the Browns. And the fact that it came against the Texans, who overhauled their roster with some of the draft picks they acquired from the Browns in the March 2022 trade for Watson, only magnified the disappointment.

At some point, the Browns will look back on this season of adversity — four QBs won games — with pride. That's going to take some time.

“It definitely is painful,” said linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the only member of Cleveland's top-ranked defense to show up against the Texans. “You have to take an evaluation, take an audit of the season, that game and learn from those mistakes.”

As the Browns cleaned out their lockers and parted ways Sunday, the present quickly turned to the future.

Such is life in the NFL.

While the timing of Watson's return to the field remains a little unsure as he continues to rehab his right shoulder, coach Kevin Stefanski made it clear that he's excited about what's ahead for the 28-year-old.

Watson's sample size is small, only six starts, but his last one was encouraging.

Despite his shoulder fracture and a sprained ankle, Watson, who has started just 12 of 34 possible games in two seasons, completed all 14 passes in the second half to rally the Browns to a 33-31 road win at AFC North champion Baltimore.

There would be no more heroics, but the Browns are convinced more will come from Watson.

“Every time it felt like we were taking a step, he got banged up or hurt,” said left guard Joel Bitonio. “With our defense, if they play at the level we know and expect them to play to, I feel very confident with Deshaun coming back and being our quarterback.”

While that's assured, there's another issue with Watson. His guaranteed, five-year $230 million contract includes a record $64 million salary cap hit for next season, which will force the Browns to restructure some deals.

After the season they just endured, that seems easy.

BACKUP PLAN

Flacco saved the Browns' season. It's unlikely he'll be back for a second one with Cleveland.

The 16-year veteran showed he can still play at a high level, going 4-1 and throwing for more than 1,600 yards in the final five regular-season games. Flacco, who threw two pick-6s in the playoff loss, also had a massive impact as a leader off the field.

“Joe was awesome,” Stefanski said.

But unless Watson's not ready for the season, it would be hard to imagine the Browns bringing back Flacco as his presence could create an awkward situation.

Whatever's next, Flacco will forever be remembered in Cleveland for his short, storybook stay.

AT THE TOP

The Browns are headed in the right direction. There's stability, something the franchise lacked for years.

Players credited Stefanski's steadiness in getting them through a season in which lineups were constantly in flux. He's taken the Browns to the playoffs twice in four seasons, and Stefanski, who is already the team's longest-tenured coach since 1999, is expected to sign a contract extension in the near future.

Same goes for general manager Andrew Berry, who built enough roster depth to withstand the waves of injuries and made a wise decision in plucking Flacco from semi-retirement.

“We’ve built something,” said Bitonio, who pushed through injuries to start 15 games in his 10th season. "I hope it’s a start of hey, this is what we do. This is a minimum. You go to the playoffs every year and hopefully there’s more to come from that.”

HOME WRECKERS

The Browns dominated teams at home. They were docile everywhere else.

The disparity was most striking for Cleveland's defense, which allowed a league-best 13.9 points per game at home, but 31.3 in road games. The 17.4 differential is the largest for any team in 42 years.

"We've got to pull that apart and look at it,” Stefanski said. “It is something that you have to get to the bottom of.”

Other issues to examine will be the team's turnovers (they led the league with 37 giveaways) as well as what happened down the stretch to All-Pro end Myles Garrett, who had just one sack in his final seven games and was neutralized Saturday by Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

Garrett may be one of the favorites for AP Defensive Player of the Year, but his closing argument wasn't convincing.

GOING, GOING ...

Kareem Hunt walked out of Cleveland's locker room Sunday wearing one of the team's white throwback helmets. He wasn't sure if he'll ever get to put it on in a game again.

Hunt is one of several free agents who may not return. The 28-year-old re-signed with Cleveland after star Nick Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 and led the Browns with nine rushing TDs.

He'll test free agency but would love to stay with his hometown Browns.

“Cleveland until I die,” he said.

Other key free agents include: Flacco, linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki, defensive end Za’Darius Smith, defensive tackles Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst II and Shelby Harris and punter Corey Bojorquez.

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