CLEVELAND (AP) — Deshaun Watson signed with the Browns back in March amid fanfare blended with controversy and curiosity.
He didn’t really arrive until the second half Sunday.
Finally looking like the elite quarterback Cleveland mortgaged its future for, Watson threw three touchdown passes — two to Amari Cooper — after halftime as the Browns pushed Washington to the edge of playoff elimination with a 24-10 win over the Commanders.
While Watson’s stats weren’t impressive (9 of 18 for 169 yards), his best all-around performance in five starts provided a glimpse of the possibilities ahead for the Browns (7-9), who are trying to build momentum for 2023.
Watson’s new year didn’t start so well.
His first half was embarrassing — 3 of 8 for 23 yards — and included a comedic moment as he ended a wild scramble from the pocket by throwing a pass to ineligible right tackle Jack Conklin, who can add a target to his career resume.
Watson was awful, and by halftime Twitter was ablaze with negative comments directed at him — and at the Browns for trading three first-round draft picks and spending $230 million on him.
Watson, though, changed the narrative with some pinpoint passes in the second half along with a few well-timed runs schemed by coach Kevin Stefanski, who had his own issues in the first 30 minutes.
“He made a lot of plays,” Stefanski said Monday on a Zoom call. “Made plays that were designed. Made plays off schedule. Designed runs, had a really nice one there on second down up the middle and broke free to the outside.
“You saw him making a lot of football plays. At the end of the day, obviously that is what you are looking for from your quarterback.”
It could be argued Watson is more than a quarterback for the Browns, who were widely criticized for signing the three-time Pro Bowler amid sexual misconduct accusations by two dozen women when he played for Houston. He served an 11-game suspension before he saw the field for Cleveland.
He’s the new face of a franchise that’s never been to the Super Bowl and has spent most of the past two decades mired in failure.
Sunday was a small step forward.
Nick Chubb rumbles on. Cleveland’s Pro Bowl running back gained 104 yards on 14 carries, powering for yards through Washington’s loaded defensive front.
Chubb has 1,448 this season and needs 47 on Sunday in Pittsburgh to set a career high and 52 to join Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only backs in team history to go over 1,500 yards in a season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Credit the Commanders, but Cleveland’s defense couldn’t get off the field in the second quarter, when Washington went on a 21-play, 96-yard drive that chewed up 11:27 and ended with Carson Wentz’s 1-yard TD plunge on fourth down.
The Browns let the Commanders convert five third downs, including a third-and-17 on one of the six longest drives — in terms of plays — in the league since 1993.
“Too many,” Stefanski said of the conversions.
Other than that, Cleveland’s defense had one of its most productive games, forcing three turnovers and limiting the Commanders to the one TD.
Safety Grant Delpit’s season has turned 180 degrees.
After some communication and assignment mistakes in the first few weeks, Delpit, whose career has also been slowed by injuries, is becoming the ball-hawking playmaker the Browns projected when they drafted him in the second round in 2020.
Delpit had two interceptions Sunday and seven tackles, giving him 101 this season.
Tight end David Njoku’s solid season has stalled.
Njoku had another drop and was only targeted three times, one week after he let a potential game-tying TD pass slip through his hands in the final seconds of the Browns’ 17-10 loss to New Orleans.
Stefanski said it’s too early to know if Conklin (ankle) or cornerback Denzel Ward (shoulder) will be available this week. Conklin has also battled a foot injury this season. Ward had an interception in the first quarter before getting hurt in the second half.
15 — Myles Garrett’s sack total with one game left. The star defensive can break his single-season record (16) and potentially lead the league with a solid finish against the Steelers.
There’s plenty at stake for the finale at Pittsburgh. The Browns can wreck the Steelers’ playoff hopes, sweep the season series from their biggest rival for the first time since 1989 and equal last year’s 8-9 record.
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