AFC South Reporter
C.J. Stroud was in the thick of the MVP race in November, a rare feat for a rookie.
His playcaller, 36-year-old Bobby Slowik, has been a hot head-coaching candidate this cycle, despite being a first-year offensive coordinator.
It shows how terrific both have been in the Texans’ stunning 2023 campaign — and they showed up again in the biggest game of the season to date for Houston.
Stroud and Slowik keyed an explosive offense in the Texans’ 45-14 wild-card rout Saturday of the Browns at NRG Stadium. Houston advanced to the divisional round for the first time since 2019, which is also the last time that the franchise was in the playoffs.
Stroud finished the game with 274 passing yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, a 76.1% completion rate and a 157.2 passer rating — the highest for a rookie in any NFL game (minimum 20 attempts). At 22 years old, he also became the youngest starting quarterback to win in the postseason. The Texans had 356 yards of offense and didn’t surrender a sack or turn the ball over against arguably the best defense in the NFL.
For Stroud, it added to what’s becoming a superstar résumé.
For Slowik, it proved to be a terrific audition for a head-coaching job that — either this year or next — seems inevitable.
The Texans’ defense also had an emphatic finish to the game, registering back-to-back pick-sixes in the third quarter. It’s the first unit to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a playoff game since the Seahawks in January 2008. But the dominance was started by an offense that was humming early to put Houston up 24-14 in the first half.
Success on that side of the ball was especially impressive because the Browns boast an elite defense under coordinator Jim Schwartz — even if it didn’t look like it Saturday. In the regular season, Cleveland ranked No. 1 in total defense, passing defense and third-down efficiency, led by Pro Bowl talent on all three levels. Opponents averaged just 164.7 passing yards per game.
The Texans had 236 by halftime.
CJ Stroud, Texans CRUSH Joe Flacco, Browns – Dave Helman reacts
Houston humiliated Cleveland — Stroud with his arm, Slowik with his playcalling. The Browns jumped ahead early in the second quarter before the Texans responded — one play and 18 seconds later. Stroud connected with tight end Brevin Jordan for a 76-yard catch-and-run score. It marked Houston’s longest play this season and its longest ever TD in a playoff game.
Houston also had pass plays of 38, 37 and 27 yards in the first half.
“Bobby did a great job today like he always does,” Stroud said. “When he calls [the plays], we ball. He knew to mix it up a bit. We wanted to throw the ball early just to set the tone that we were not going to shy away from anything. … When you have an OC [offensive coordinator] that’s going to be aggressive and taking care of the football, that’s a recipe for success.”
Stroud became just the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least three touchdowns in a playoff game, doing so in just one half.
His 236 passing yards through two quarters also marked the most by a rookie in the first half of a playoff game since play-by-play data has been tracked in 1991.
“C.J. is the reason why we’re in this position,” coach DeMeco Ryans said. “Our whole team is leaning on him. He has the shoulders to carry that weight.”
If the Texans were going to have any chance at making a run in these playoffs, at beating a Browns team with an elite defense, Stroud was going to need to be at his best. And he delivered — just as he did throughout the regular season, when it was needed most in pressure-filled situations.
Stroud shining in his playoff debut didn’t tell us anything new. It reaffirmed what we’d already seen.
It’s a scary proposition for whoever stands in the Texans’ way of an AFC Championship Game berth.
“No moment is too big for him,” Ryans said of Stroud, “And when you have a player who can shoulder the load of your team and the confidence that he gives our entire team, it’s so cool to watch.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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