CLEVELAND – The hand-painted banner draped over the wall near the tunnel leading to Cleveland's locker room seemed a tad premature.
"We're For Real," it said.
"We just realize we're not there yet," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "We've got to be better."
Despite starting a new quarterback and playing without injured star running back Arian Foster, the Houston Texans knocked Cleveland from its one-week reign atop the AFC North with a 23-7 win over the Browns on Sunday.
Texans tornado J.J. Watt caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett and Houston's defensive front harassed Hoyer for four quarters as the Texans (5-5) handed the Browns (6-4) a humbling loss.
After moving into first this late in a season for the first time since 1994, the Browns flat-lined before a raucous crowd that grew quieter as the game progressed.
Even the return of Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon from a 10-game suspension on Monday won't dull the pain from this stinging defeat.
The Browns were outplayed from the start and failed to build upon the impressive Thursday night win in Cincinnati which had brought them national attention.
"Disappointing," coach Mike Pettine said. "To have the momentum and a little bit of time off, it's disappointing to come out and play that way. I told the guys we won't be a team that makes excuses. We got beat soundly in all three phases. They made a lot more plays than we did."
The Browns may have lost more than their division lead. Linebacker Karlos Dansby suffered a potentially serious knee injury. Dansby, who has had a major impact during his first season in Cleveland, will undergo an MRI on Monday. Pettine said there's concern Dansby's injury could be long term.
"It would be a huge blow," defensive end Bill Winn said on the prospect of losing Dansby. "Karlos is our defensive captain. The guy is one of the most intelligent players I've ever been around.
"He knows how to win. He knows how to handle losing and how to push guys through it and get us back to form. Losing him is a big deal, but we have the guys in the room to step up and carry the flag if he is out."
In the interim, the Browns didn't look like a team ready to contend for a playoff spot.
They had no answer for Watt, who along with his TD recorded a strip sack, made five tackles — three for a loss — and recovered a fumble.
They couldn't contain Houston's rushing game as rookie Alfred Blue ran for 156 yards on a franchise-record 36 carries.
They got nothing from their special teams — again — as Billy Cundiff missed a field goal, Marlon Moore's 104-yard kickoff return was nullified by a holding penalty and long snapper Christian Yount sailed one over punter Spencer Lanning's head.
Pettine didn't use the long break as an excuse, and he certainly didn't see the Browns laying an egg.
"I thought we had a good week of practice," he said. "I've been in this league a long time. You really can't use the week of practice to predict how the game will go. If you fall into that trap, I've seen weeks where teams have practiced horrendously and gone out and played their best game of the year and vice versa. We thought we had good plans on both sides of the ball. We went out, and they out-executed us."
Browns running back Ben Tate was a non-factor against his former team. He had just two carries for minus-9 yards and was combative about his lack of playing time.
"Yeah it's tough," he said. "It's definitely tough, especially losing. Losing is what's tough. Losing, especially to my old team — that's tough."
Hoyer completed 20 passes but had 30 incompletions and finished with a career-high 330 yards and a touchdown. He missed open throws and never found his rhythm. Hoyer, who was outplayed by Ryan Mallett making his first career start, also took a hard hit in the fourth quarter from linebacker Brian Cushing, a blow that left Hoyer gasping for air and sent rookie backup Johnny Manziel scrambling for his helmet.
The Texans knocked the wind out of the Browns, too.
"I can't put my finger on it," said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who caught a 32-yard TD and finished with six catches for 97 yards. "It just wasn't our day. That's the best way I can put it."
NOTES: Browns LB Jabaal Sheard sustained a foot injury in the second half and did not return. ... CB Joe Haden was credited with a career-high 13 tackles and got his first interception this season. ... The Browns allowed 213 yards rushing on 50 carries.
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