Stroud, Texans are playoff-bound after thrilling win over Colts

C.J. Stroud of the Houston Texans reacts after a touchdown pass during the first quarter against the Colts. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

C.J. Stroud, in the biggest game of his NFL career to date, on the road, on the Houston Texans’ first play from scrimmage, threw it about 60 yards downfield.

And if Stroud handed the ball to Nico Collins, he couldn’t have been much more accurate. The pass went for a 75-yard score that set a tone and helped put the Texans in the AFC playoffs as at least a wild card.

Nothing seems to bother the Texans rookie quarterback. Nobody should have been waiting around for confirmation of Stroud’s immediate stardom, but we got it Saturday. With a playoff spot on the line, Stroud made an immediate statement with a long touchdown pass to Collins on the Texans’ first play of the game.

Stroud made some huge plays as the Texans beat the Colts 23-19 to clinch a playoff spot. The Texans will win the AFC South title if the Jacksonville Jaguars lose to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, or a wild-card ticket if Jacksonville wins.

In a huge spot for a rookie, Stroud completed 20 of 26 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Stroud also led a drive that ended with a go-ahead touchdown with 6:20 left. Indianapolis drove downfield and was in the red zone in the final two minutes, but Gardner Minshew missed a short pass to Tyler Goodson on fourth-and-1 — it hit Goodson in the hands but was well behind him — and that practically ensured Houston was going to the playoffs. The Colts are eliminated from the postseason hunt with the loss.

The Texans finished the regular season 10-7. There are many reasons for their shocking, rapid ascension, but the main reason is their record-breaking rookie quarterback.

C.J. Stroud, Texans start fast

It wasn’t just the throw on Collins’ early touchdown. Stroud also made the right read. As ESPN’s Troy Aikman pointed out, once the Colts’ safety inched up to keep an eye on tight end Dalton Schultz, that opened up the deep post to Collins. Collins has been an emerging star this season, and he can beat a cornerback deep. He also has the quarterback who can deliver the ball. It was the first time this NFL season that a team scored a touchdown on its first offensive play of the game, according to ESPN.

The playcall also says a lot about Stroud. The Texans coaches weren’t playing it safe with a rookie quarterback on the road in a win-or-else game. They trust Stroud like he’s already a superstar quarterback. And he is.

Stroud didn’t dominate the entire game. The Texans struggled for much of what amounted to a playoff game and felt like one. But Indianapolis struggled some too, especially in the first half. Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew was 5 of 11 for just 29 yards by the time Houston took a 14-3 lead on a Stroud-to-Andrew Buck 1-yard touchdown with 1:57 left in the first half.

The Colts battled back after a bad start. They hit a field goal near the end of the first half. Jonathan Taylor, on his way to a huge game, broke a 49-yard touchdown run. The Colts hit the 2-point conversion after that and the game was tied 14-14.

The teams traded field goals, then Stroud made another play that not many other quarterbacks can make. On second-and-14, Stroud avoided the rush to buy time and threw one up to Collins, who made a great catch for a big first down.

“You can’t even imagine how good this is,” Aikman, a Hall of Fame quarterback, said on the broadcast.

Later in the drive, Stroud threw a laser under pressure to Collins on second-and-13 for 23 yards to the Colts’ 7-yard line. There was a penalty tacked on to the end of the play, and Devin Singletary scored a 3-yard touchdown a play later to give the Texans a lead with 6:20 to play. Texans kicker Kaʻimi Fairbairn missed his first extra point of the season and Houston led 23-17.

The Colts had a long drive, led by Taylor, but Taylor was taken off the field for a key fourth down. Minshew had an inaccurate pass, Goodson couldn’t catch it and it fell incomplete. The Texans took an intentional safety with one second left but the Colts couldn’t get a miracle on the final free kick to end the game.

With that, Houston was going to the playoffs.

Houston has surprising playoff season

Houston’s turnaround started before drafting Stroud. They hired DeMeco Ryans, a Texans legend from his days as a linebacker, to be their new head coach. That was the first big step. Then Houston drafted Stroud when the Carolina Panthers passed on him, and followed that by trading up to the third pick to take edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. Anderson has also been fantastic as a rookie.

Then players like Collins and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. made a big jump, the offensive line improved, the defense played well and suddenly Houston went from maybe the worst franchise in the NFL to the playoffs.

The Texans are in the playoffs with the chance at a division title if the Jaguars lose, and it seems like just the start. The Texans’ shocking turnaround this season starts with Stroud. No offense to Los Angeles Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua, but the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting shouldn’t be all that close. Especially after Saturday’s big performance by Stroud.

Stroud has been one of the best stories in the NFL this season. And his season isn’t over yet.

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