C.J. Stroud has already made Texans a playoff team — and a potentially tough out

C.J. Stroud has often said that he’s built for pressure. 

It’s a confidence born from the adversity he overcame in his childhood. From the expectations thrust on him as the starting quarterback at college football powerhouse Ohio State.

“You’re right under LeBron [James],” Stroud joked about his responsibilities as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback at his introductory press conference. “You’re the leader of the whole state.” 

And in his first NFL prime-time game, a de facto playoff game for the Texans against the division rival Colts, he proved it. Stroud rose to the occasion — as he’s done several times in his terrific rookie season. 

The No. 2 overall pick dazzled in the Texans’ 23-19 victory that came down to the wire Saturday, and sent Houston to the playoffs for the first time since 2019. Stroud registered a 76.9% completion rate (20-of-26) for 264 yards and two touchdowns, a performance which likely secured his hold on AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He’s what makes the Texans so intriguing and dangerous in the postseason. 

Whomever Houston meets on Super Wild Card Weekend — which won’t be known until after Sunday’s games — will have to reckon with a quarterback who’s already one of the NFL’s best. Such players give their teams a chance to win any game. Stroud has won nine of his first 15 starts, and an AFC South crown if the Jaguars tie or lose to the Titans, for a franchise that went 11-38-1 over the previous three seasons.

On Saturday, he became the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to reach 4,000 passing yards, joining Andrew Luck, Justin Herbert, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. 

“C.J. just being special in these big-time moments,” coach DeMeco Ryans said afterward. “When we need him most to step up and make plays, he’s done it time after time throughout the entire year. 

“It’s not surprising anyone. That is who he is. He’s one of the best passers in this league and he shows it consistently, game in and game out.” 

Stroud set the tone immediately against the Colts. 

On the Texans’ first play from scrimmage, he silenced the crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium, completing a 75-yard bomb to Nico Collins for a touchdown. On Houston’s go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Stroud twice bailed the Texans out of a pickle. First, he hit tight end Dalton Schultz for a 17-yard completion on 2nd-and-20. Later, he connected with Collins for a 14-yard diving catch on 2nd-and-14. On the latter play, Stroud spun away from the pressure, backpedaled and fired a throw off his back foot to find Collins for the conversion. 

The 22-year-old QB finished 7-for-7 for 82 yards on the game-winning drive, which was capped by a Devin Singletary touchdown run following a 23-yard strike to Collins. 

Stroud and Collins had a special connection all night. The Texans’ leading receiver caught all nine of his targets for a career-high 195 yards and a touchdown. He had 129 receiving yards (and the score) by halftime. 

“C.J. and Nico, they stole the show,” Ryans said. 

What made Stroud’s performance all the more impressive is that he did this in spite of his supporting cast. 

Houston played without three of its top five receivers — standout rookie Tank Dell (out for the season with a broken leg), and veterans Noah Brown (back) and Robert Woods (hip). Singletary was inefficient (63 rushing yards on 2.6 yards per carry, including a long of just seven yards). The offensive line has been shorthanded for most of the year. The defense was hurting Saturday, too, as sack leader Jonathan Greenard missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. Star rookie edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. was also limited by an ankle injury. The vulnerability of the Texans’ defensive front, which entered the game with the league’s No. 3 run defense, manifested in the Colts rushing for 227 yards, including 188 from former All-Pro Jonathan Taylor. 

But Houston’s personnel issues didn’t faze Stroud. They never have, despite his youth and inexperience. 

In a Week 8 victory over the Buccaneers, he threw for 470 yards (an NFL single-game rookie record) and five touchdowns, engineering the game-winning drive in 40 seconds to overcome a leaky defense and a non-existent run game. In a Week 3 victory at Jacksonville, he guided the team to a 20-point victory despite missing four starters on the offensive line and a struggling run game.

This is what Stroud does. It’s why he’s built for the pressure of the playoffs. 

Whoever comes in the Texans’ way must be wary. 

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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