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Cleveland Browns forgot who they were in loss to Houston Texans

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A stoic-faced Paul Kruger looked like he wanted to toss his brown leather boots in disgust before saying it.

"Mentally, I felt like we were not where we needed to be," said the Cleveland Browns' defensive end while getting dressed at his locker after a 23-7 loss to the Houston Texans.

Um, gentlemen … mental mishaps are so Week 3. That's more for the tried-and-true, four-win Browns teams, so channel them if you' like, but today, for the next six weeks, the stakes are as real as that J.J. Watt touchdown catch you just gave up.

Losses are understandable. Clunkers are far less, at least right now, with the AFC North begging you to take it.

"Came up small at the bigger moments," said coach Mike Pettine of his 6-4 Browns, now tied with the Steelers and Ravens. "There's not much more else to say than that."

A loss to a respectable Houston team shouldn't be soul-crushing. The NFL is the league of wild mood swings. It's a place where Andy Dalton can have a 2.0 passer rating one week and a 143.9 rating the next.

But this game was visually worse than the score indicated. Stunningly, the Texans controlled from kickoff to finish, as if the Browns got stuck inside their own huddle. Giving up 213 rushing yards should be personal to the Browns, who were pushed off the ball all game. Many of Hoyer's 330 passing yards were off empty, late-in-the-game plays when the Texans had a comfortable lead.

The Browns' only scoring drive shouldn't have been a scoring drive at all. It should have ended with a successful punt on 4th-and-28. Watt's roughing-the-kicker penaltyon Spencer Lanning kept the drive alive and the Browns capitalized with a 32-yard touchdown catch by Andrew Hawkins. Lanning gets a clean punt and the Browns might've registered their first shutout in FirstEnergy Field since 2009.

Weeks ago the Browns were giving up 154 rushing yards per game, but they shaved 20 yards off that average with three straight wins by taking pride in stopping the run. That's what makes Sunday so painful.

"I honestly don't know if it was the highs from last week or whatever it is, it's got to be fixed," Kruger said. "That's not who we are, that's not how we gotten to this point. We've got to continue to play with the formula that got us here. If we do that, we're going to be fine."

Yes, perspective is required here. The Browns have the same record as the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. No reason why the Browns can't handle Atlanta next week.

But without an overly dominant NFL roster talent wise, the Browns had overachieved save one small thing -- that "formula" Kruger mentioned. The Browns thrive off turnovers and play-action and precision and opportunity, the stuff that elevates teams without an abundance of raw talent.

On Sunday, Kruger was wondering where the heck that went, because it wasn't in his brown boot.

"Just the overall mental state, we could have come out with more emotion, more energy," said Kruger, who doesn't think the Browns' temporary AFC North lead was a distraction. "That's something I know I should have fixed early on."

The Browns thrive off momentum, so maybe if that Isaiah Crowell fumble didn't squash a perfectly good second-quarter drive (instead creating a 14-point swing before the half) then the Browns are still rolling.

But the Browns defense still knew what was coming -- 54 rushing attempts, no-huddle offense -- and couldn't stop it. The Browns missed Karlos Dansby, who left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury.

Hoyer knew what was coming, too: Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing. Cleveland's last two losses came against good defensive lines in Houston and Jacksonville, which held Hoyer to a combined 36-of-91 passing (39.4), compared to 55-of-85 (64.7 percent) in the last three Browns' wins. Cleveland isn't built to throw 50 times and run just 24 times, but that's what happened Sunday.

Until proven otherwise, the current trend is this: Hit Hoyer and he won't be as accurate. Maybe that goes for all quarterbacks under pressure but especially here, though the Browns' eight penalties for 67 yards weren't helping Hoyer or anybody else. Neither did two late Miles Austin drops. The third quarter was especially numbing as the Browns rattled off drives of 10, 9 and 4 yards.

"They aren't all going to be like last week's game against the Bengals," said Hawkins, referring to the Browns' 24-3 win last week. "We understand that. We're not going to harp on it."

Don't harp, but know this -- the honeymoon is over for the first-year Browns regime, and 10 AFC teams will end the weekend with at least six wins while fighting for six playoff spots.

The Browns have found an identity this season. They found out Sunday what it's like without one.