Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson runs during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Deshaun Watson had an unspectacular season debut in last week’s win over the Texans. He was better on Sunday, but the Browns’ playoff hopes all but vanished with a 23-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

And perhaps it was unrealistic for Cleveland to pin those hopes on a quarterback who, for all his talent, hadn’t played since the final game of the 2020 season.

Watson returned last week after an 11-game suspension resulting from accusations by more than two dozen women that he sexually harassed or assaulted them during massage therapy sessions.

On Sunday, he completed 26 of 42 passes for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also had 33 of the Browns’ 71 rushing yards.

Watson threw for 131 yards with no touchdowns and a pick the week before, but the Browns’ defense bailed them out at NFL-worst Houston.

Watson said the rust will continue to come off each week, but it’s likely the games will become less meaningful for Cleveland.

“The game is going to continue to speed up for myself, the process, the game plan,” Watson said. “Each week just needs to get better. Today was another learning lesson. Just need to continue to improve. The progress is always taking one step forward.”

The Browns (5-8) trail the first-place Bengals and Ravens by four games in the AFC North with four games to play. They are two games out of the final wild-card playoff spot.

Watson did not have a fully healthy Amari Cooper on Sunday. The veteran receiver was active after testing his injured hip during warmups. Cooper was targeted seven times, but had just two catches for 42 yards.

“You could see it here and there,” Watson said. “Certain routes we called, he wasn’t 100 percent. I just needed to keep trusting him.”

It was a mixed bag for Watson.

He completed his first four passes of the game. The Browns opted to bring in backup Jacoby Brissett on fourth-and-1, but his deep pass into the end zone fell incomplete. Watson said he had no problem with the decision.

“Me and Jacoby have a great relationship,” Watson said. “When I was away for 11 games, I was supporting him, calling him, texting him. He’s helping me out in different situations.”

Watson completed 8 of 12 passes in the first half and 18 of 30 after halftime with the Browns trailing.

“He had some really good moments, and made some plays,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Some plays that I know he wants back. I thought he lost vision and was late with the throw (on the interception). But I thought there were some good moments.”

In the third quarter, Watson threw a 13-yard TD pass to David Njoku. Then, with a Bengals defender holding his legs, he completed a 16-yard pass to Cooper for a first down.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Cooper said. “That’s every player. As the game goes on, you get into a rhythm.”

His next pass after Cooper’s catch was intercepted by Jessie Bates. Watson blamed himself.

“It was there for a second, but I was late,” Watson said. “We had a post going. The backside safety Bates cut it a little bit. Me being on the other hash, I probably should have taken the check down. Bates made a great play. Every turnover is disappointing.”

After converting a fourth down with a scramble during a fourth-quarter drive, Watson’s pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones was incomplete in the end zone, ending a 15-play possession with no points.

That drive summed up the day for the Browns, who had beaten the Bengals in five straight meetings, including a 32-13 rout on Halloween with Brissett at QB.

The 30-year-old Brissett is now on the bench in favor of Watson, who was signed to a five-year, $230 million deal despite the sexual misconduct allegations.

“This is a process,” Watson said. “My mindset is just to be 1-0 this week against Baltimore. We get paid to do this job. I just want to win. After 11 games, I’m trying to get my groove back.”


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