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Watson must improve quickly for Browns to make playoff push

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

By TOM WITHERS

AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) Deshaun Watson met all the NFL's requirements to play again. He now needs to quickly fulfill the obligations of a franchise quarterback.

He didn't look anything like one Sunday.

Showing more rust than expected following a 700-day break between regular-season starts, Watson struggled in his long-awaited debut for the Browns, who offset their QB's poor performance by scoring touchdowns via punt, fumble and interception returns in a 27-14 win over the Houston Texans.

Watson wasn't good, but he did enough to beat a really bad team. He'd better improve quickly with Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals up next, or the Browns (5-7) can kiss any playoff hopes goodbye.

Watson's return following an 11-game suspension for alleged sexual misconduct wasn't just unimpressive. At some levels, it was alarming.

He fired incompletions into the NRG Stadium turf, either missed open receivers or was late seeing them, and threw an interception in the end zone when he failed to see Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre lurking in coverage.

Watson finished 12 of 22 for 131 yards and didn't produce an offensive TD. It was hardly the return the Browns envisioned when they invested in the 27-year-old by signing him to the richest contract ($230 million over five years, guaranteed) in history.

There were a few moments of the old Watson, the one who can turn a would-be sack into a first-down scramble. But there weren't enough of them and the game seemed to be moving too fast for the three-time Pro Bowler, who twice pounded his hand on the artificial surface in frustration.

Nerves may have played a part in a hostile homecoming for Watson, who returned to face a fan base that no longer adores him while also playing in front of some of the women who accused him of lewd behavior during his massage therapy sessions.

Afterward, Watson said he wasn't "jittery" and continued to steer clear of non-football matters, deflecting questions about remorse or responsibility.

"I did everything that I was asked and was required to do," he said.

As expected, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski gave Watson's less-than-stellar debut a positive spin.

"That was the first one and the first one in a long time, so we knew that there was going to be a little bit of playing through that," Stefanski said Monday. "He will get more comfortable with the more game reps that he gets. All of those things that you look at offensively and all of those things that you look at with Deshaun, they are all correctable."

They'd better be. Time is short.

The Browns have zero margin for error if they want to make a playoff push. With two straight wins, they're within sight at .500, and getting there will require a win this week in Cincinnati and next week at home against Baltimore, suddenly dealing with a Lamar Jackson knee injury.

Watson has got catching up to do. Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has no doubt he'll get there.

"He's still that quarterback. That unique guy. That profound guy," Owusu-Koramoah said. "He had been off the field for 700 days. So I'm looking forward to seeing what happens. I'm not saying `Oh, he's going to be the No. 1 quarterback,' no. But he's going to perform well, I know it.

"Just from what I've seen, he's going to be a great quarterback here for us, and he's going to be here for a long time. So get used to him."

WHAT'S WORKING

Granted it was against the lowly Texans, but Cleveland's defense had its second straight strong game.

After not getting a takeaway in three games, the Browns had four - one on special teams - and held Houston to 283 yards.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Stefanski may need to further tailor the offensive game plan to ease Watson's transition. He didn't look comfortable throwing deep, and the Browns didn't employ many run-pass options, perhaps to keep Cincinnati guessing.

STOCK UP

Linebacker Tony Fields II emerged as an unlikely star, returning a tipped pass 16 yards for a TD, forcing a fumble that was returned for a score and recovering a fumble.

It was a welcomed breakout for the second-year linebacker out of West Virginia who has dealt with injury issues.

STOCK DOWN

Wide receiver Anthony Schwartz's day went from bad to worse.

A week after the speedster scored his first career TD on a reverse, Schwartz caught a short pass from Watson and headed up field before the ball was punched free and Houston recovered.

Schwartz later left with a concussion.

INJURIES

Linebacker Sione Takitaki will miss the remainder of the season after tearing a knee ligament in the fourth quarter. He's the third starting middle linebacker to suffer a season-ending injury following Anthony Walker Jr. and Jacob Phillips. ... Rookie WR David Bell (thumb) is day to day.

KEY NUMBER

53.4 - Watson's passer rating on Sunday, his lowest in 55 career NFL games.

WHAT'S NEXT

A visit to Cincinnati to face the Bengals, who have won six of seven, with their last loss a 32-13 rout by the Browns on Halloween. Cleveland has won the past five meetings and is 4-0 against Burrow.

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Updated December 5, 2022

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