CLEVELAND - A two-game win streak allowed the Texans to put their past turnover problems behind them. But the Texans' ball security issues crept up again Sunday in front of a crowd of 72,730 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
With the Texans and Browns entering the contest separated by a single game in the AFC standings and desperately jockeying for position in the playoff race, the Texans proved to be more error-prone by committing three giveaways, which the Browns converted into two touchdowns in their 27-17 win.
Although the Texans' defense picked off Browns quarterback Derek Anderson once, the team was unable to score any points off of rookie cornerback Fred Bennett 's interception as kicker Kris Brown missed wide right on a 46-yard field goal in the second quarter.
After the game, coach Gary Kubiak lamented the turnover ratio and the Texans' third down offense, which produced only two first downs in 10 opportunities.
"We turned the ball over - third downs and turnovers," Kubiak said. "It's not good. If you're not making third downs in this league, you've got to make some big plays and we don't have any to show for today."
After entering halftime down 14-10, the Texans squandered several opportunities, which resulted in the Browns pulling away in the second half. The Texans started each of their six second half drives in their own territory, while the Browns began three of their seven second half possessions in Houston territory and controlled the clock for more than 20 minutes in the final two quarters.
Quarterback Matt Schaub completed 22-of-36 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns, but he also tossed two interceptions in the game. The Texans had trouble getting wide receiver Andre Johnson on track. The two-time Pro Bowler finished with only three catches for 37 yards in his second game back from a knee injury.
"They didn't necessarily take him out (of the game)," Schaub said of Cleveland's defense on Johnson. "They had some certain schemes for him, obviously, because he's the guy you have to pay attention to in our passing game. They had two guys around him wherever he was on the field. We tried to move him around in certain positions, so they had a good plan for him."
Despite his third quarter fumble, tight end Owen Daniels led the way offensively with seven catches for 82 yards (11.7 avg.) and his first touchdown of the season in the fourth quarter. Running back Ron Dayne also delivered a solid outing in place of the injured Ahman Green by totaling 78 rushing yards on 16 carries (4.9 avg.).
In an inspired performance, linebacker DeMeco Ryans finished with a team-high 11 tackles, while defensive end Mario Williams collected the team's only sack, forcing a fumble that Cleveland recovered.
The efforts of Ryans and Williams couldn't overcome Cleveland's run game led by Jamal Lewis. He gained a game-high 134 rushing yards on 29 carries (4.6 avg.) with a touchdown, helping the Browns collect eight of their 21 first downs on the ground.
The Texans' offense found its rhythm early and had a golden opportunity on the game's opening drive, but Schaub's pass intended for Daniels on fourth-and-three from the Cleveland 35 sailed over his head.
"We got OD (Owen Daniels) open for a big play and we've got Andre (Johnson) open underneath for a touchdown and we just don't make the play," Kubiak said. "You can't miss with these opportunities on the road. There's a touchdown opportunity right there, as well as a first down opportunity, so that was a big miss. It was a big miss for us right there. We weren't going to kick that long of a field goal going into the wind that way."
The Texans' defense delivered in consecutive short-yardage situations on the Browns' first two drives. First, Williams stuffed running back Jason Wright on third-and-two from the Cleveland 43 to force a punt, and on the following series linebacker Danny Clark tackled fullback Lawrence Vickers for no gain on fourth-and-one at the Houston 39.
That stop created momentum for the Texans' first scoring drive, where a crucial blitz pickup by Dayne allowed Schaub to complete an 18-yard pass to Johnson to the Cleveland 41. A 12-yard grab by Daniels and a 12-yard completion to Walter moved the Texans into scoring position, and Walter finished the series with a 17-yard touchdown grab with 2:23 left in the first quarter.
Rookie Jacoby Jones nearly capitalized on the Browns' ensuing punt when he returned it 16 yards to the Houston 37. A 14-yard gain by Dayne and nine-yard pass to Walter gave the Texans a first down inside Cleveland territory. But the Texans turned it over two plays later when Schaub's pass intended for tight end Joel Dreessen was deflected in the air and picked off by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson at the Browns' 29-yard line.
Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius' 25-yard reception and Lewis' 17-yard run set up Cleveland's first touchdown, when wide receiver Braylon Edwards caught a 19-yard pass that tied the score 7-7 with 9:55 left in the first half.
Thanks to Phil Dawson's kickoff that sailed out bounds, the Texans' offense began on its 40-yard line. After 18-yard and 11-yard catches by wide receiver André Davis and Johnson, respectively, the Texans were in scoring position. On third-and-eight from the Cleveland 23, Schaub's to Daniels was broken up by safety Brodney Pool, leading to Brown's 41-yard field goal that put the Texans ahead 10-7 with 7:09 remaining before halftime.
The Texans collected their only takeaway of the game moments later when Bennett picked off Anderson's pass intended for Edwards and returned the interception 33 yards to the Cleveland 34. After a screen pass to Dayne on third down was stopped short of the first down, Brown attempted a 46-yard field goal that missed wide right.
With time running out in the first half Cleveland's offense remained on the field on fourth-and-three from the Houston 32. Edwards ran a quick slant route and absorbed contact after his catch to pick up nine yards and a first down, and tight end Kellen Winslow capped the series a few plays later with a seven-yard touchdown that helped put Cleveland ahead 14-10.
"That's a tough one because we missed the field goal and then they go down a get a touchdown down there with 10 or 15 seconds left in the half," Schaub said. "That's a tough situation being up three and then going into the locker room and being down four. The momentum definitely goes in their favor with them getting the ball in the first possession of the second half."
After exchanging punts on the first two possessions of the second half, the Browns began their second drive from their 28-yard line. Cleveland proceeded to rush six times for 48 yards before Bennett broke up Anderson's third down pass intended for Jurevicius near the goal line. Phil Dawson's 25-yard field goal stretched the Browns' lead to 17-10 with 7:24 left in the third quarter.
A 26-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Daven Holly, who was defending Davis on a deep pass, gave the Texans a first down at the Cleveland 47. A few plays later, Daniels picked up a first down on a 17-yard catch to the Cleveland 22, but he fumbled on his way down to the ground and cornerback Leigh Bodden recovered for the Browns' second takeaway. Kubiak challenged the ruling on the field, claiming that Daniels was down by contact prior to fumbling, but the play stood after review.
"That's a shot in the dark," Kubiak said of his challenge. "If you're on the road, you're not going to see that replay. That's just part of the business and we were just taking a shot in the dark just listening to the players."
With a clear path to the quarterback, Williams sacked Anderson and forced a fumble on the second play of the following drive, but rookie left tackle Joe Thomas recovered the loose ball to avoid the Browns' second turnover. The Browns were forced to punt three plays later.
The game began to unravel for Houston early in the fourth quarter when Matt Turk punted 37 yards to the Houston 42 after the Texans' fourth drive of the second half. An eight-yard return by Joshua Cribbs helped jump start the Browns' six-play, 25-yard scoring drive.
Winslow's 21-yard catch gave the Browns a first down at the Houston 13, and after Anderson's pass intended for tight end Steve Heiden fell incomplete, Dawson kicked a 27-yard field goal.
With the Texans trailing 20-10 with 8:35 remaining in the game, Schaub was sacked by former Texans player Antwan Peek on the first play of the next series for a 12-yard loss. On second-and-22 from the Texans' eight-yard line, Schaub's pass intended for Johnson was picked off by cornerback Brandon McDonald at the Houston 30.
"It's been our Achilles' heel and again today it hurt us," Schaub said of the offense's giveaways. "We need to clean those things up."
Lewis scored on a one-yard touchdown a few plays later to help stretch the Browns' lead to 27-10 with 5:48 on the game clock.
Consecutive completions to Daniels for 30 total yards set up Davis' 29-yard catch to the Cleveland 21. Daniels finished the drive with a six-yard touchdown catch that helped make the score 27-17 with 3:12 left in the game.
But it was too little, too late, as safety Nick Sorensen recovered Brown's onside kick attempt, giving Cleveland a first down at the Houston 39. Lewis then picked up a couple of first downs that allowed Cleveland to run out the remainder of the game clock.
The Texans (5-6) face the Tennessee Titans next Sunday at LP Field in a game critical to the Texans' wild-card hopes.