CINCINNATI — The Cleveland Browns have lost their control over Ohio and the Bengals, breaking a five-game winning streak in their meetings on Sunday afternoon at Paycor Stadium. The loss seems to signal the end of the Browns playoff hopes, which were weak to begin with, but it also showcased the next steps for the Browns as they deal with the reality that they've found themselves in.
In Sunday's game, Watson struggled in the first half. It was not much of a surprise after his first game back against the Texans where Watson's rust from not playing a regular season snap in nearly two years.
With Watson under center, the Browns failed to score a touchdown in six straight quarters. It was an offensive stall out that was expected but perhaps not to that magnitude. What was for much of the season a top-10 offense with Jacoby Brissett holding the torch, took 10 steps back.
But the work Watson has done over the past week did have some results on Sunday, which paves the way for his development within the organization. A strong connection with tight end David Njoku began to develop, especially on the third-quarter drive that saw him targeted three times with a six, 14 and 13-yard reception, the latter resulting in Watson's first touchdown pass for the Browns.
Watson's 26-for-42 attempts with 276 yards and a touchdown was a better outing than the week before, but not nearly enough to overcome the Bengals. In the fourth quarter, more growing pains as Watson couldn't connect with wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Amari Cooper, throwing an interception early in the fourth quarter before failing to convert twice as the game went on.
The positive was a stronger outing from Watson that saw him start to move outside the pocket more and appear to play more loose and free.
"Like I said before, just keep letting the game come to me. The game is going to continue to the speed up for myself, the process, the game plan, everything is just going...each week got to get a little bit better and a little bit better," Watson said after the game.
Moving forward, that means continuing the development with the connection he shares with his receivers. Knowing their routes and understanding the concepts that the Browns are looking to run.
"Certain plays, certain routes that I haven't been able to throw to a couple of receivers. We’ve just got to continue to just improve as much as we can. Only really real reps we can really get is in the game. So today was another learning lesson also for myself and for the receivers on different routes and different concepts," Watson said.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski saw the positive on Sunday amid the disappointing outcome.
“A lot like us as a team, some really good moments and made some plays. Some plays I know that he wants back but I thought there were some good moments," Stefanski said. “I know he's getting better, he's only going to get better with game reps, those type of things and had some really good moments.”
Now, though, with a 5-8 record and a third-place position in the AFC North, the Browns hold a 1% chance to make the playoffs. Mathematically, there's still a chance, but it's highly unlikely.
"I don't know what our chances are. I don’t know what the percentage is. I just know next week we got to go 1-0. We’ve got to punch someone in the mouth. And if our chances are zero, we got to knock down someone else's chances. At the end of the day, I'm not giving up. And this team’s not giving up. Regardless of where we stand. It’s all about pride. It's all about desire. I've said that since day one. You play for your brothers, not just for yourself," said defensive end Myles Garrett after the loss. “As long as the door’s cracked that’s going to help energize this team even a little bit more. We have enough fuel as is, from inside and outside. But as long as they say we have an opportunity to make it in some way, shape or form, we’re going to keep on knocking at the door and try to kick it down.”
But while the Browns still plan to fight this season, it most likely won't be for a postseason push. Instead, it will be to keep developing the team with Watson under center. Playing complementary football where the defense is producing at the same time as the offense and special teams. Nourishing the connection between Watson and his receivers, getting the offensive line healthy and meshing with their quarterback. Opening up the run game to where the team knows it can be.
The season isn't what anyone anticipated at the beginning of the year, but perhaps the reality that should have been expected following the hand-down of Watson's 11-game suspension. The Browns aren't going to give up their efforts to figure out how to win, but they have a tough matchup ahead with the Ravens coming to FirstEnergy Stadium.
Watson knows that, and while he continues his development, has that goal in mind—even if they aren't playing for a wild card spot.
"We get paid to do this job and we have to go out there and show up and we have to go get that win and that's what we want to do. Like I said, there's five games left. Anything can happen," Watson said. "We only can control what we can control and that's going out there on Saturday and showing up in front of our fans and showing that we’re here to play and we want to get the W."
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