Darn! Just when you need the Texans to stink as usual, they were becoming respectable.
Of course, they were thinking the same thing about the Browns as the teams prepared to clash in what was expected to be a frigid Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.
Who would have thought that both teams would be .500 or better as the playoff chase began in earnest? Yet there they were – the Texans were 5-5 and the Browns were 6-4.
Houston had finally acquired the talent to contend. Quarterback Matt Schaub, whom it had stolen from Atlanta, was performing far better than predecessor David Carr. And wide receiver Andre Johnson had been nothing short of brilliant. He had caught six passes for 120 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown strike, in a 23-10 defeat of New Orleans the previous week.
"(Johnson) just brings a presence to our huddle and to our offense," Schaub told the Associated Press. "It opens up our run game. It just changes the complexion of what we can do as well as it dictates to the defense that they have to account for a playmaker of his caliber."
Meanwhile, defensive end and former first overall pick Mario Williams was emerging as a dominant pass rusher. He was on the way to a 14-sack season.
The Browns, it seemed, could score on anyone. The problem is that anyone could score on them. And though tight end Kellen Winslow wouldn't call out his defense, he implied that his teammates playing on that side of the ball needed to step it up for the Browns to blossom into a championship contender.
"The playoffs are a long way away," said Winslow, who was on his way to a 1,000-yard receiving season despite being forced to play with pain. "We have to play a lot better to get where we want to go.
"We're 6-4 and we're not the Patriots at 10-0 or whatever they are, so we have a lot of work to do. We really could be 8-2. We had some tough losses, some close ones that we thought we should've won, so we're not happy around here. We're striving for perfection, and that's what we want to get."
Even the Patriots weren't perfect – despite their unblemished record. But everyone understood Winslow's concerns. And the defense was about to take it to heart.
Would Winslow just talk a good game? Or would be play one as well?
Neither. He played a tremendous game in leading the Browns to a critical 27-17 victory over visiting Houston.
The brash tight end managed game-highs with 10 catches for 134 yards and snagged the go-ahead touchdown pass in a win that firmly established the Browns as a playoff threat with five games remaining.
Winslow's team wrested the momentum away late in the second quarter and ran away with it. The Texans grabbed a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard touchdown strike from Schaub to Kevin Walker, but the Browns answered when quarterback Derek Anderson fired a 15-yard touchdown pass to blossoming wide receiver Braylon Edwards five minutes into the second quarter.
It was Edwards' 11th touchdown reception of the season, which placed him two short of the team single-season record set by Gary Collins in 1963.
Less than three minutes later, however, dependable Kris Brown put Houston ahead with a 41-yard field goal. The Texans appeared destined to hold the halftime lead, but Winslow hauled in the 7-yard score with just 15 seconds remaining. A pass from Anderson to Edwards on 4th-and-3 kept the drive alive and allowed the Browns to forge ahead.
And they would remain ahead the rest of the way.
They wouldn't overwhelm the Texans, who for most of the game played the Browns tougher defensively than the majority of opponents had earlier in the season. But two Phil Dawson field goals stretched the lead to 20-10 and a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Jamal Lewis with six minutes left in the game clinched it. A 6-yard scoring pass from Schaub to Owen Daniels served only to tighten the final score.
In the end, it was Winslow, Lewis and the maligned Cleveland defense that keyed the victory. Lewis finished with 134 yards on the ground, pounding away to keep the Texans offense off the field. And when they were on the field, they gained just 77 yards on the ground and were held to just one field goal from the end of the first quarter until their final possession.
In the process, the Browns secured their fifth consecutive home victory after the opening-week blowout against Pittsburgh, and remained within one game of the first-place Steelers in the AFC North. Moreover, they would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on that day.
The season, of course, didn't end that day. But the Browns were still quite pleased with themselves as the media converged in a happy locker room.
What a difference a year makes. Now there were games the Browns were expected to win.
And they were winning them.
Not that the Texans were chopped liver – they did arrive in Cleveland with a 5-5 record. But those who had been awaiting a Browns collapse were finally conceding that they were an established postseason contender.
Among those smiling at the current state of his team was veteran linebacker Andra Davis, the lone Brown who had experienced the short-lived playoff run in 2002. Following the victory over Houston, he spoke about the rather weird feeling of being thrust into the midst of the AFC race.
"We kind of control our own destiny," Davis told the Associated Press. "I've been waiting a long time to say that."
Few in the locker room, however, were uttering the "p" word – playoffs. And if they were, they weren't boasting about the team's chances to qualify.
"I don't know anything about that," bullish back Jamal Lewis told the Dayton Daily News. "It's a five-game season for us, pretty much. We just have to take care of our business."
Meanwhile, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius was echoing that sentiment with a carpentry analogy.
"We'll worry about the playoffs it that time comes," Jurevicius told espn.com. "If we can build on this and just lay one brick per week, we'll have a nice house at the end of the year."
The nice house being constructed by the Texans began to crumble on this day. And Schaub knew it. His team hadn't exactly played mistake-free football. He had tossed two interceptions and the Texans added a fumble.
"We put ourselves in a tough situation," Schaub said. "The turnovers really hurt us. That's been our Achilles' heel all season. We just didn't make the plays."
Lewis did. And as he did all those years with the Baltimore Ravens, he would take the lead offensively in the second half of the season. The 100-yard rushing day had been rare for him early in 2008, but it would become typical down the stretch.
"It's kind of my time of the year to run the football," Lewis said.
It wasn't the Browns time of year to play meaningful games. But this wasn't your average season. The drama was just beginning to unfold.