HOUSTON — Houston Texans rookie quarterback CJ Stroud threw three first-half touchdown passes and the Texans rallied in a 45-14 AFC wild-card victory over the Cleveland Browns on Saturday at NRG Stadium. The defense returned two Joe Flacco interceptions for scores in the second half.
Stroud joined wide receiver Nico Collins and tight ends Brevin Jordan and Dalton Schultz on scoring strikes, while cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Christian Harris hit pick-sixes to put the game out of reach and advance Houston to the divisional round of the playoffs. For the first time since 2019.
Running back Kareem Hunt scored two TDs for the Browns.
The Texans put together a performance as impressive as they have been in years. Stroud — who missed the Week 16 loss to the Browns because of a concussion — was the catalyst, going 16-of-21 passing for 274 yards and three touchdowns. But he's not the only star for Houston. The Texans' defense returned Flacco for TDs, turning a competitive game into a rout after holding Cleveland's offense to 14 points.
The trip proved what the Texans can do when they're hitting on all cylinders. The Browns' throttling of playoff teams like the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers showed that the Texans can compete with anyone in the NFL when they play their best.
Describe the game in two words: Absolute dominance. When the Texans faced Cleveland in Week 16, their defense allowed 36 points and their offense didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. This time, the Texans scored 45 points with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, beating the Browns through the air and on the ground and posting two defensive scores.
This is an important under the radar statistic: Flacco had a 31.7 passer rating under pressure, going 6-for-10 and throwing an 82-yard pick-six to Nelson. That put the Texans up 31-14 with 6:05 left in the third quarter.
Buy Breakout Performance: Harris had the best performance of his two-year career. The linebacker finished with eight tackles, a sack and an interception, which he returned for a 36-yard touchdown to put the Browns away.
Eye-popping NextGen Stats: Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. matched Browns wideout Amari Cooper for 80% of Flacco's dropbacks, and Cooper didn't have a catch when covered by Stingley. — DJ Bien-Aime
Next game: January 20 or Jan. 21 Divisional Round vs. TBD (at home vs. Ravens, Buffalo Bills or Kansas City Chiefs or Miami Dolphins)
Joe Flacco's magical run with the Browns has come to a crashing end.
The 38-year-old quarterback, who revived Cleveland's playoff hopes after signing with the team in November, threw a pair of pick-sixes in the third quarter to spark the Texans' rout.
No NFL quarterback has thrown as many pick-sixes in a playoff game since Washington's Todd Collins did in a 2007 wild-card game at the Seattle Seahawks. Flacco became the first signal caller to return an interception for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the playoffs since the Raiders' Rich Cannon in Super Bowl XXXVII (2002 season).
Main play: The Browns led 14-10 early in the second quarter and seemed to be asserting control. But on the first play of the ensuing possession, Houston tight end Jordan was freed on a play-action line of scrimmage. Defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah instead chased behind Stroud, leaving Jordan wide open. Straut dumped the ball to Jordan, who broke the arm tackle of cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. and ran for a 76-yard touchdown. The Texans never looked back.
Biggest hole in the game plan: The Browns and their charming pass rush couldn't get any pressure on Stroud, who carved them up in return. In the first half alone, Stroud threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns and wasn't sacked once. Cleveland's No. 1-ranked defensive team has inexplicably been a no-show.
Describe the game in two words: Gut punch. With a lethal downfield passing attack and a dominant defense, the Browns finally seemed to have the ingredients to make a deep playoff run. Instead, they were exposed across the board, statistics that overshadowed all the injuries this team had to overcome to enter the postseason. — Jack Trotter
Next game: The season is over.