CLEVELAND (AP) — Deshaun Watson unbuckled the chin strap and pulled off his orange helmet. He headed to Cleveland's sideline, where he watched the final minutes of Sunday's game.
For the first time in weeks, this was a positive development.
Watson's return to the field was just what the Browns (5-3) needed after more than a month of uncertainty, speculation and concern about a right shoulder injury for their quarterback that was threatening to derail their season.
While it appears they've survived a turbulent stretch, rougher games await.
And, given the Browns' bumpy history, probably some drama as well.
But with Watson back, they did what good teams are supposed to do and destroyed a one-win Arizona team starting a rookie quarterback for the first time. Cleveland's defense overwhelmed the Cardinals (1-8), recording seven sacks, holding them to just 58 yards and never allowing them inside the Browns' 44-yard line.
“It all came together,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. "I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”
The defense's performance took some pressure off Watson, who made just his second start since injuring his rotator cuff on Sept. 24. He looked rusty in the first half as he struggled to find his touch on some short throws.
And when he grounded an incompletion on a fourth-down pass, some boos filled the autumn air inside Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Watson, though, warmed up and connected on two deep throws to Amari Cooper, the second a 49-yarder with the Browns already leading 20-0 that seemed to signal that his shoulder is stronger and won't be a problem.
At least that’s the hope.
This is the Watson the Browns have been waiting for. This is the one they mortgaged their future on with a $230 million fully guaranteed contract. This is the one who has yet to put together two solid games, let alone two halves.
So this was a start. Or perhaps in this case, a restart.
“You don’t expect the guy to look like Superman, especially coming off an injury like he was,” said Garrett, who added a sack and fumble recovery to bolster his Defensive Player of the Year application. "Him getting back in the groove of things, getting the feel of the game, making those deep passes, putting some on the money, getting out the pocket, just feeling like himself again.
"That’s what we want to see and he’s only going to get better.”
Again, that's the hope.
Despite all the Watson-inspired theatrics and season-ending knee injuries to star running back Nick Chubb and starting right tackle Jack Conklin, the Browns have survived. They'll be playing meaningful games in November — never a given in Cleveland.
Cleveland's defense craved a bounce-back performance and got it. Stung by his group not being able to stop Seattle's game-winning drive a week earlier in Seattle, coordinator Jim Schwartz challenged the Browns, who delivered one of the most dominant defensive efforts in club history.
The Browns recorded their first shutout since 2007, and Arizona's yardage total was the third-fewest allowed by a Cleveland defense.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Consistency. The Browns look like legitimate title contenders one week, imposters the next. While the defense has been sound for most of the first eight games, the offense, in part because of the uncertainty at quarterback, is a work in progress.
That has to change if the Browns are going to win their first division crown since 1989 or make the playoffs.
Coach Kevin Stefanski. His steadying hand has been vital in guiding the Browns through not having Watson for more than a month. While he may not be as fiery as some Cleveland fans want, Stefanski's even-keeled demeanor has been an underrated component in the team's success.
Wide receiver Elijah Moore. He hasn't had nearly the impact on Cleveland's offense as many predicted (29 catches, no touchdowns), though Watson's injury may have contributed to that. Now that Watson is back, maybe Moore's production will pick up.
Although starting LT Jedrick Wills Jr. will miss at least four games with a strained medial collateral ligament, the Browns expect him to return this season. For now, it appears that Wills, who was placed on injured reserve, will be replaced by James Hudson III. ... WR Marquise Goodwin is in concussion protocol after taking a blow to the back of his head and falling hard on an incompletion Sunday. ... CB Greg Newsome II (groin) could be back this week after sitting Sunday.
0 — The Browns finally held onto the ball after coming in with an NFL-high 17 giveaways through eight games.
A rematch Sunday with the Baltimore Ravens, who wrecked the Browns 28-3 on Oct. 1. That was the first game missed by Watson, who had been expected to play before being ruled out a few hours before kickoff.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl
Tom Withers, The Associated Press