C.J. Stroud, Texans dominate Browns in wild-card rout

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HOUSTON — Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans had a coming-out party in their 45-14 AFC wild-card win over the Cleveland Browns on Saturday at NRG Stadium, with Stroud throwing three first-half touchdown passes and the Texans’ defense returning two second-half Joe Flacco interceptions for scores.

Stroud connected on scoring strikes with wide receiver Nico Collins and tight ends Brevin Jordan and Dalton Schultz, while cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Christian Harris tallied 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.


Houston Texans

The Texans put together as impressive of a performance as they’ve had in years. Stroud — who missed the Week 16 loss to the Browns due to a concussion — was the catalyst, going 16-for-21 passing for 274 yards and three touchdowns. But he wasn’t the only star for Houston. The Texans’ defense forced Flacco into two interceptions that were returned for TDs, turning a competitive game into a rout after holding Cleveland’s offense to 14 points.

This outing demonstrated what the Texans can do when they’re hitting on all cylinders. The throttling of the Browns, who had beaten such playoff teams as the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers, shows the Texans can compete with anyone in the NFL when playing at their best.

Describe the game in two words: Complete domination. 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 registered 45 points before there were two minutes gone in the fourth quarter, beating the Browns through the air and on the ground and posting two defensive scores.

Under the radar stat that matters: Flacco had a passer rating of 31.7 when pressured, going 6-for-10 and throwing a fateful 82-yard pick-six to Nelson. That put the Texans up 31-14 with 6:05 left in the third quarter.

Buy a breakout performance: Harris had the best game of his two-year career. The linebacker finished with eight tackles, a sack and an interception that he returned for a 36-yard touchdown to put the Browns away.

Eye-popping NextGen stat: Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. was matched up with Browns wideout Amari Cooper for 80% of Flacco’s dropbacks, and Cooper didn’t have a single catch while being guarded by Stingley. — DJ Bien-Aime

Next game: Divisional round vs. TBD (either at the Ravens, Buffalo Bills or Kansas City Chiefs or at home against the Miami Dolphins) on Jan. 20 or Jan. 21.


Cleveland Browns

Joe Flacco’s magical run with the Browns came to a crashing end.

The 38-year-old quarterback, who revived Cleveland’s playoff hopes after signing with team in November, threw a pair of pick-sixes in the third quarter to ignite the Texans’ rout.

No NFL quarterback had thrown multiple pick-sixes in a playoff game since Washington’s Todd Collins did so in a 2007 wild-card game at the Seattle Seahawks. And Flacco became the first signal-caller to have interceptions returned for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the playoffs since the Raiders’ Rich Gannon in Super Bowl XXXVII (2002 season).

Pivotal play: The Browns had taken a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter and seemed to be asserting control. But on the first play of the ensuing possession, Houston tight end Jordan released from the line of scrimmage off play-action unguarded. Defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah chased after Stroud instead, leaving Jordan wide open. Stroud dumped the ball off to Jordan, who broke through cornerback Martin Emerson Jr.’s arm tackle and raced in for a 76-yard touchdown. The Texans never looked back.

Biggest hole in the game plan: The Browns and their vaunted pass rush could not 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 defense inexplicably didn’t show up.

Describe the game in two words: Gut punch. With a dangerous downfield passing attack and a dominant defense, the Browns appeared to have the ingredients to finally make a deep playoff run. Instead, they were exposed across the board, which figures to overshadow all the injuries this team overcame to get into the postseason. — Jake Trotter

Next game: Season over.

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