NFL Preview - Houston (4-5) at Cleveland (6-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's more than 900 miles from the place he became a collegiate standout and more than 600 miles from where he was drafted - but as it turns out, the Ryan Mallett Era will officially begin at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Now a fourth-year pro with precisely one completed pass to his name, Mallett will become an NFL starter this week when he takes the reins of the Houston Texans' offense against the host Browns.
Mallett lost a yard on a single carry this season while serving as an understudy to Ryan Fitzpatrick through Houston's first nine games, but was named the starter for the rest of the season by coach Bill O'Brien as the team emerged from its Week 10 bye. The former University of Arkansas star had spent his initial three seasons as Tom Brady's caddy after the New England Patriots drafted him in 2010.
He was acquired by the Texans for a draft pick in August.
"I've been waiting four years for this," Mallett said. "Now it's my time to have an opportunity to show what I can do."
Fitzpatrick had failed to reach 300 passing yards in a single game this season and Houston is 28th among 32 teams with a per-game passing average of 209.7. Still, the Texans already have twice the wins this year (four) than they'd managed in 2013 (two) while being led at various times by Matt Schaub, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates - none of whom are still on the roster.
And wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had six 100-yard games last season but none this year, doesn't pretend that the cure to all Houston's ills - the team has lost four of five since a 3-1 start - is a regime change under center.
"Whoever is at quarterback, it doesn't matter," he said. "We all have to go out and do our jobs. It's not just going to be about him. It's going to be about all of us. All of us need to step our game up and go out and play the way we know how to play."
The Texans were beaten at home, 31-21, by Philadelphia in their last game before the week off.
Running back Arian Foster, who leads the AFC with 822 yards, left that game with a groin injury but is expected back to meet the Browns. Assuming he plays, he'll be matched for the first time with former Houston understudy Ben Tate, who's now in Cleveland.
Tate ran for a team-high 771 yards last season while Foster was limited to eight games by injury, and he began his stint with the Browns as the premier back, but now shares time with Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. All three had rushing touchdowns in Cleveland's 24-3 defeat of Cincinnati in Week 10.
"We're winning," Tate said. "We're 6-3 and in first place, that's all that really matters."
The Browns will start their own former Brady backup at quarterback in the form of Brian Hoyer, who's been clinically efficient this season while throwing interceptions at a low rate (1.5 percent of his passes) that's surpassed by only Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.
He and Mallett were teammates in New England in 2011.
The Texans defense that will line up against him is in various levels of disarray thanks to a rash of injuries. Cornerback Kareem Jackson is not expected to play with a knee problem, though his fellow cornerback, Johnathan Joseph, has cleared concussion protocol and is eligible to return. Linebacker Brian Cushing has missed two games with a knee injury and rookie Jadeveon Clowney also had a knee injury before missing the Philadelphia game due to illness.
Cleveland's presence in first place is its latest in any one season in 20 years.
It hasn't seen the playoffs since 2002 and has lost at least 11 games in each of the last six years. A win Sunday would provide a four-game winning streak for the first time since 2009.
"There are no awards. There's no prize for being 6-3," coach Mike Pettine said. "The only thing that's done for us is our games are meaningful now. You still have to have the ability to put that one in a box and move onto the next one."
The 21-point defeat of the Bengals was Cincinnati's first regular-season home loss since December 2012 and saw the Browns limit the hosts to 165 total yards while forcing four turnovers. Cleveland allowed 79 yards passing - its fewest since 2011 - and its run defense has yielded 91.7 yards in the last three victories after being gashed for 155.5 in the season's first six games.
"You have to be able to handle success," Browns linebacker Paul Kruger said. "Coach Pettine has done a better job than any coach I've even been around helping us understand that and making an emphasis on it, knowing how to handle a loss and bounce back and know how to handle a win - not overreact."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Will the Kid Be All Right?
Needless to say, all eyes will be on the strong-armed Mallett's starting debut, particularly those of an opportunistic Cleveland defense. The Browns are second in the league with 13 interceptions and seventh overall with 17 takeaways. Mallett has thrown just four NFL passes - all with New England in 2012 - and was intercepted once.
While the Cleveland defense pays attention to Mallett, the offense will surely be focused on Houston defensive star J.J. Watt, who's already amassed a season's worth of stats through nine games. Watt has 8 1/2 sacks, seven pass deflections, 11 tackles for loss and 29 quarterback hits. And he's become the first defensive lineman to score three touchdowns since William Perry in 1985.
As impressive as the Browns looked in dismantling the Bengals, one need glance no farther back than Week 7 to discover reason for caution. Back then, coming off a 21-point rout of Pittsburgh, Cleveland was the toast of the Sunday preview shows - and then lost, 24-6, at winless Jacksonville.
If Mallett is as good as many think he is, the Texans have plenty of reasons to believe a road win is within reach.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 21, Browns 20
11/13 10:14:48 ET