HOUSTON — It was over before the end of the third quarter. Every Houston Texans fan in NRG Stadium stood, booed and waved their phones like flashlights at a team no one thought could make noise this season.
And with 10 minutes left in the game, rookie CJ Strode's day is already over. He was 16 of 21 for 274 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 157.2 passer rating in Houston's 45-14 rout of the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. And he really needed a first half, with 236 yards passing against the No. 1 defense in the league, the most yards the Browns have allowed through the first two quarters all season.
“I've never seen anything like it,” third-year tight end Brevin Jordan said.
Stroud made Cleveland's secondary appearances as fictional characters. He was never sacked and the only time he was actually hit, Stroud still completed a 38-yard pass to Nico Collins.
“That's No. 3 or No. 4 in progress, depending on how you look at it,” backup quarterback Davis Mills said. “(Stroud) does a good job of taking advantage of what the defense gives us, and it doesn't matter if the 1 isn't open or the 2 isn't open, he just keeps clicking in his stride. We'll rely on our offensive line to position the defense and find a guy in space.
CJ Stroud stuns, Joe Flacco crashes as Texans beat Browns in AFC wild card game
Stroud and Browns quarterback Joe Flacco traded haymakers back and forth for much of the first half. Last week in Indianapolis — a game the Texans must win for a chance at the playoffs — Stroud stunned in his first prime-time affair, connecting on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the game's first play. On Saturday he had another single-play touchdown drive, this time to Jordan, who took a short pass in the flat 76 yards into the end zone early in the second quarter on the Texans' longest play of the season. Houston took a 24-14 lead when tight end Dalton Schultz opened the scoring late in the half on a 37-yard post route.
In the second half, DiMeco Ryans' defense dominated, with back-to-back plays by cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Christian Harris leading the way to the first two Big-Sixes of the season, 38-14. Houston's defense, with Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard limited by injury in recent games, repeatedly pressured Flacco and made him uncomfortable in the pocket. The run defense, meanwhile, held the Browns to just 56 rushing yards as Cleveland shut down in the second half.
Stroud became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game on Saturday, but his teammates see even bigger things in his future.
“I think he's going to be the best of all time,” said third-string quarterback Case Keenum, an 11-year NFL veteran. “He really has the potential to be that. … I know, it's too early to say things like that. But, man, he does some things that are out of this world.
Part of Keenum's job is to be the hype man for the starter. He knows this and admits it. But he is serious. “On a good day, there might be two or three (throws) I want to return, on a bad day, there'll be 10,” Keenum said. “I can count on one hand the things he's missed all year.”
Keenum said Wednesday that his favorite throw from the rookie is every two minutes. Last week, there was a scramble drill that looked like Collins dove and threw up before catching the ball; Minutes later, Stroud's 23-yard shot hit Collins, bringing the Texans into scoring position.
“That's one dude who's locked in,” Collins said. “He's calm and collected, he's ready to give up everything for his brother. Seven is special.”
Jordan stopped making Stroud feel like a rookie during training camp.
“I want you to be in the nest and around him,” Jordan said. “The dude's unbelievable, how he moves, how he talks, everything, he's been a captain and a QB1 since training camp. You can tell the way he moves, the way he walks around the locker room and talks to the guys. When you have a humble, confident guy who wants to work. , the sky is the limit.”
“What CJ is doing on the field, bringing the city out, man, it's amazing to be a part of,” running back Damien Pierce said.
When Ryans emerged as the head coaching candidate for the Texans last January, former Texans defensive end and current Houston radio host Seth Payne struggled to find the right words to describe Ryans to Payne's radio audience.
“I'm really frustrated trying to explain how unique he is,” Payne said. “Because you always hear this nonsense from people like PR campaigns about what wonderful guys they are. … So I literally had to stand on top of tables to tell everybody, no, I mean it. He's different than everybody else.
Payne was an “old-school, grumpy veteran” when the Texans took Ryans in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. And he was upset about starting so early in training camp as a rookie linebacker.
“Within two days, I realized what a fool I was to have that opinion,” he said. “The guy exudes leadership and maturity. It stands out now, but when a kid is 22 years old it really sticks. You can tell then that someone is an old soul.
Payne tells a story about the first time Ryans called plays in the huddle when the rookie had a hard time calling the play and Payne watched him. “He looked at me and he was like The Beastmaster,” Payne said. “I don't even know what happened, I was immediately reassured that he probably shot me with a tranquilizer dart.”
With the emerging Texans, it's all about coach DeMeco Ryans and not
Houston's years-long dysfunction began under the fiery Bill O'Brien and the mysterious Jack Easterby. After O'Brien was released, franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade. Then corruption. Watson sat out the 2021 season, then was traded to Cleveland, and Houston cycled through two one-and-done coaches in 2021 and 2022.
Ryans, who made two Pro Bowls as a six-year starter in Houston, emerged as one of the most coveted head coaches on the market last offseason after a sterling run as a defensive assistant in San Francisco. He was a slam-dunk hire for his former team. Or maybe a tranquilizer-dart rental.
Stroud made an offensive turnaround, while making his mark defensively by relying on young flag-bearers like Ryans Anderson. The result? Ten wins since 2019 and the team's first division title. Now, after Saturday's fireworks, it doesn't seem real to the players who were here last year and the year before.
“My last two years here, it hasn't been great,” Collins said. “We had 10 wins, now 11 wins, the playoffs — it's a huge turnaround. It's hard to explain the feeling.”
“Oh, 3-13 is a playoff, second round?” Pierce said. “Everyone doubted us, but that's right. We didn't give them a reason to believe in us last year.
A year or two or three years ago, Payne heard the nature of the calls he was taking drastically change.
“The conversation is about actual football rather than soap opera drama,” he said. “There were so many problems and so many plays — and, frankly, dysfunction — that for a while you forget that you can be a football team focused on playing football games.”
Carlos Lopez, a 28-year-old Texans fan who has been coming to games for most of his life, wore a No. 7 Strat jersey in his seat in the second level of NRG Stadium on Saturday. Before the game, he said he realized the ceiling for the Texans was much higher than he thought.
“When Deshaun was here, I thought it was the best thing we could have gotten, and we were very fortunate to have Deshaun,” Lopez said. “But now, looking back on it … we're better off than what Deshaun did for us.
“It's a new expectation, we'll be here again and again. That's the expectation Stroud has put on himself and this team. What he's done for a year.
(Photo: Michael Owens/Getty Images)