For once, Ryan Mallett walked off an NFL field without thinking about what he could have done to help, how he would have done things differently.
This was all new to Mallett, and he savored the moment.
This victory belonged to him.
Mallett made the most of his first career start, throwing two touchdown passes — his first to defensive star-turned-wide receiver J.J. Watt — and led the Houston Texans to a 23-7 win on Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, whose reign alone atop the AFC North lasted all of one week.
"It made the four years, the wait worth it," Mallett said. "I couldn't ask for a better start to my career."
Mallett, handed the starting job during the bye week, completed 20 of 30 passes for 211 yards and led the Texans (5-5) back to .500 just as their season seemed to be slipping away.
There were some shaky moments, including two underthrown passes that could have been TDs, but Mallett delivered the spark the Texans needed. Those years as Tom Brady's backup paid off, and the big-armed Mallett, who always looked the part but wasn't able to show what he could do, came through.
"I'm sure there are some plays that he wishes he could have back, but overall he did what we asked him to do," said Texans first-year coach Bill O'Brien, who benched Ryan Fitzpatrick to give Mallett his shot. "It's only one game and I'm sure there are some mistakes that we have to correct, but it's a good start for him."
Mallett capped an 89-yard scoring drive — highlighted by a 41-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins — by lofting a fade pass to Watt for Houston's first TD. The multi-talented Watt showed his athleticism by hauling in Mallett's throw and staying in bounds for his fourth TD this season.
"I never would have thought my first career touchdown pass would be to a defensive lineman," Mallett said with a laugh. "But he's a pretty good player."
So is Mallett, who learned the pro game under both Brady and O'Brien in New England before coach and QB were reunited this year in Houston.
Mallett went into his first start without running back Arian Foster, who sat out with a groin injury. But Mallett wasn't fazed and showed control and composure whether he was motivating his teammates, lining up Houston's offense quickly to keep Cleveland's defense off balance or rifling passes around the field.
"The last time I was around him was when he was a rookie," O'Brien said. "He grew up playing football since he was a little kid. He understands football and he understands the system."
The Texans outplayed the Browns (6-4) across the board, pushing Cleveland out of first in its division and slowing down of the league's surprise teams.
"It's a disappointment," said Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer. "We just realize we're not there yet. We've got to be better."
The Browns may not be ready to contend, and here are five other things learned in Houston's convincing win:
WATT NOW?: Brought in to supposedly block near the goal line, Watt shifted outside and then caught Mallett's fade over rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey — who had good coverage — in the end zone, putting the Texans ahead 7-0.
"We've been practicing that for a while," O'Brien said. "We put him out there — he's 6-7, 290 pounds — and it doesn't matter who they put out there."
Watt is the first defensive lineman to have four TDs in a season since 1948.
DANSBY INJURED: Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby suffered a knee injury in the second quarter and didn't return. Dansby will undergo an MRI on Monday, and the Browns are keeping their fingers crossed. Dansby has been a positive influence on and off the field during his first season with Cleveland.
BLUE DART: Texans rookie RB Alfred Blue was more than adequate filling in for Foster. Blue rushed for 156 yards on 36 carries, tying a franchise record.
He did it on a gray, 33-degree day, but Blue said it felt like he was back home in Louisiana.
"It was really like playing in the backyard," said the sixth-round pick from LSU.
OFF TARGET: Hoyer had a rough day, going just 20 of 50 for a career-high 330 yards. Hoyer was pressured all day by Houston's relentless front. He took a big hit in the fourth quarter from Brian Cushing, a chest shot that Hoyer almost didn't get up from and one that had rookie Johnny Manziel scrambling for his helmet.
"It just kind of knocked the wind out of me," Hoyer said. "It's just part of the game and you've got to move on and just be tough."
CLAMP DOWN: After rushing for 170 yards in their previous game at Cincinnati, the Browns couldn't find many holes against Houston's defense. The Texans, who allowed Philadelphia 190 yards two weeks ago, limited the Browns to 58 yards on 24 carries and dropped former teammate Ben Tate to a pair of losses on his two carries.
"We tackled well," O'Brien said.
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