One of the more interesting subplots of the Week 13 NFL slate is the Cleveland Browns traveling to play the Houston Texans. Normally a game this late in the season that includes the worst team in the NFL doesn't garner much attention, but this week's game in Houston is different. Cleveland quarterback Deshaun Watson is starting his first game since the first week of January in 2021, after a suspension following a series of sexual misconduct lawsuits. Watson's last game nearly 2 years ago was also in Houston, but as a member of the Texans. Since then Watson sat an entire year on the Texans bench, before a massive trade, along with a five-year $230 million-dollar fully guaranteed contract, brought him to Cleveland.
So Watson's return to the field coincides with his return to Houston, where he spent the first 5 years of his career. That's more than enough reason to keep you tuned in. The line for this game is currently set at Cleveland -7, with an over/under of 46.5 total points.
What Type of Impact will Deshaun Watson have on the Cleveland Offense?
This is an interesting and complicated question. The last time we saw Watson on a football field he was putting together the best season of his career, to the tune of 33 passing touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. That however was several years ago, and in a completely different offensive system. While Watson did play in the preseason, and has been back at practice with the Browns for 3 weeks, I would expect a significant level of rust at least early in his first start back.
This also brings up the concept of personnel fit. While Jacoby Brissett filled in admirably at quarterback for the 4-7 Browns, his skillset doesn't duplicate that of Watson. Brissett is a much more cerebral and less athletic player than Watson. Brisset's biggest strengths are often in play before the ball has even been snapped, while Watson's superior arm talent and physical prowess can change a game at any moment when the ball is in his hands.
This disparity means that Cleveland will need to adjust several parts of their offensive attack, particularly when it comes to the blocking schemes up front. A weapon like Deshaun Watson means Cleveland will be running more run-pass options, which are a drastically different blocking setup for the offensive line. With a player who is more likely to break the pocket, the Browns need their lineman to show a willingness to stick on blocks without committing holding penalties when Watson takes off, whereas with Brissett you could be confident just creating a stable pocket.
In a vacuum on the field Deshaun Watson gives the Browns offense a much higher ceiling, but because his personnel fit is so different from what the team has been building around strategically the last 11 games, it will likely take some time to get anywhere close to that ceiling.
I'm sitting here nodding thinking about how this might impact a first-half line set at Cleveland -4 with an over/under total of 23 points.
What are the Motivations Behind this Game?
A second complicated question in a row. Who would think a matchup of two teams with a combined record of 5-16-1 could be so complicated?
There shouldn't be any extra-motivation for Deshaun Watson facing his old team. Most of the coaches and players he was teammates with are long gone because Houston has been undergoing a complete overhaul. Watson was treated more than fairly during his time in Houston and like we mentioned, he got out of town with nearly a quarter-million guaranteed dollars. Other than letting the rest of the league know he still has what it takes to be a premiere player in the NFL, Watson should have no particular fire to prove anything to Houston.
On the other hand, the Texans are in a more unique setting. They are currently two games ahead of the Rams, Broncos and Bears in the quest for the worst record in the league, and thus the first pick in the draft. In a strange way, winning games is actually a net-negative for the organization, even though it is a net-positive for the players and coaching staff.
However, in some ways the Texans are playing against their future selves this week. In the Deshaun Watson trade, Houston came away with the Browns first round pick in 2023, so while winning this game might risk some of their own draft status, it will increase the value of the pick they are receiving from Cleveland. This is one of the reasons why in the NFL trading future picks is such a risky business, just ask the Broncos and Rams.
In my opinion, another win for Houston combined with an additional loss for Cleveland is a larger positive for their future draft capital than if the Texans walk away with yet another loss.
Then we come to the discussion about additional motivation for the Texans. This game should be personal for the city of Houston. Watson was beloved in southeast Texas and the beacon of hope for years for a middling franchise. The allegations of more than 30 women blaming both Watson and the Texans is a stain on the community. It caused the team to be a laughing stock of the league, one that would rather let their most talented player sit on the sidelines while the team toils in NFL obscurity for a year, than go through the shameful press behind either playing or releasing Watson. I would expect the fanbase and the Texans players to take the actions Watson is accused of personally, and produce one of their loudest and most inspired efforts of the season. I'm sure they have had this game circled since Watson's suspension was finalized and I expect them to play like it.
What about the Positional and Matchup Disadvantages on the Field?
The Browns are a significantly deeper and more talented team than the rebuilding Texans. Cleveland has a powerful rushing attack behind Nick Chubb, lines up one of the best defensive players in football in Myles Garrett, and flanks them both with a host of other elite players.
Houston on the other hand is floundering in quarterback Davis Mills' second year, scoring the second-fewest points in the league. They have lost their last six games in a row, all by at least 7 points.
In a typical matchup I wouldn't even hesitate to consider 7 points an adequate spread when one team supremely outmatches the other. But it's important to remember the players and coaches on the Texans are professionals too and they have been hearing about this game all season. I think the motivational lift for Houston to represent the city against Watson is worth more than any immediate upgrade Cleveland's quarterback brings to the Browns.
Some sharp bettors agree with me as well, as there is 10 percent more money on the Texans than the percentage of wagers being placed. While nearly three-quarters of public bettors are placing their money on the Browns, it is an interesting signal when the big bets are coming in on the other side of the spread.
So Where Should I Place my Money?
If you've gotten this far in the column then you have probably heard my answer leak out in my writing. What might surprise you is exactly how I'm going to attack the lines. I rarely bet first-half spreads in the NFL, but motivational gameflow in this game is something I believe you can take advantage of.
My largest bet in this contest will be on the Houston Texans +4 to cover the first-half spread. My second largest bet in this contest will be under the first-half total of 23 points. I think the Texans will come out with something to prove in front of their home crowd, particularly on defense. I wouldn't even be surprised if the Texans make it into the locker room at half-time holding the lead.
I will also place my smallest bet of the contest on the full game spread of Houston +7. This game feels like the Browns will have to regroup and come out with renewed energy in the second half to shake off a rusty start. If the Texans get into halftime within a field goal, they will finish this game within a touchdown. However, I think they do even better. Monday's headlines will be all about Deshaun Watson falling short in his return to Houston, because I think the Texans win this game outright 23-20.
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