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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Browns-Texans wild-card matchup could come down to pass rush battle

Houston Texans’ Will Anderson Jr. sacks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson during the fourth quarter Sept. 10 in Baltimore.  (Tribune News Service)
By Jeff Schudel News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio)

It is looking as though cornerback Denzel Ward will be good to go for the Cleveland Browns’ wild-card game with the Texans. The outlook for kick returner/running back Pierre Strong isn’t as promising.

The Browns on Friday elevated kicker Riley Patterson and running back John Kelly from the practice squad to the active roster for Saturday’s playoff game against the AFC South champion Texans in Houston. The Patterson elevation was expected because Dustin Hopkins is out with a left hamstring injury. The fact they elevated Kelly and not cornerback A.J. Green indicates the knee injury Ward suffered in practice Thursday won’t prevent Ward from playing.

“Denzel’s a fighter,” Browns cornerback Greg Newsome said. “He’s been through a lot in his career and has fought back through a lot of stuff. So I know if he’s able to go, he’ll be able to go.”

Strong suffered a back injury in the season finale in Cincinnati on Sunday. He is listed as questionable.

The Browns enter the playoffs as the fifth seed in the AFC and as 2.5-point favorites to advance to the divisional round. They finished 11-6. The Texans were 10-7. The Browns beat Houston 36-22 in the regular season, but records and head-to-head doesn’t matter because the Texans won their division and the Browns were second to the Ravens in the AFC North, which is why the game is in Houston.

The Browns would be happy if the win-or-go-home rematch unfolds the way the Christmas Eve game did, but that isn’t likely. Not only is Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud ready for the rematch after missing the Dec. 24 game with a concussion, but the Texans will have rookie defensive end Will Anderson and leading tackler Blake Cashman in uniform. Both were inactive Dec. 24 because of injuries. Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard started against the Browns last month, but he was injured after just three plays. He is healthy again.

“Those are great players for them,” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “We didn’t see Greenard last time. He left early in that game, but we know what he brings. His productivity has been outstanding this year.

“Anderson’s an extremely talented pass rusher as well. Their strength is up front in their D-line. We feel that’s a good challenge. So I hope they’re healthy. We hope we get them at their best.”

The winner of the game could boil down to which team has the better pass rush. Can Browns offensive tackles James Hudson and Geron Christian block Anderson and Greenard long enough to give Joe Flacco enough time to throw downfield? Can Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett put up a performance worthy of a defensive player of the year candidate?

Garrett, not the first player in NFL history to be held without a penalty being called, had one sack in his last seven games. He made seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage on running plays in that span.

“We’re the best defense in the league,” Garrett said Thursday. “We have to go out and show it. We have to go put our stamp on that and make sure that we’re the same defense whether we’re home or away, continue to be ourselves.”

The Browns, statistically, are the best defense in the NFL. They allowed a league-fewest 270.2 yards a game and had the stingiest third-down defense. Opponents converted only 29.1% of the time. That resulted in the Browns forcing the most punts in the league – 112.