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The Growing Legend of C.J. Stroud Now Includes His First Playoff Win

The Texans and their rookie quarterback dominated the vaunted Browns defense in the wild-card round. It might be only the beginning.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in the 2000s, when the internet was a purer place, Chuck Norris facts were everywhere. They were dumb but funny.

Time waits for no man … except Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris once punched a man in the soul.

Chuck Norris can dribble a bowling ball.

C.J. Stroud’s Houston Texans eviscerated the Cleveland Browns 45-14 in the first AFC wild-card playoff game on Saturday, and the C.J. Stroud facts are beginning to feel like Chuck Norris facts. A sample of these Chuck Norr—I mean, C.J. Stroud facts:

  • Stroud is the youngest quarterback to win a playoff game (22 years, 102 days).
  • Stroud is the highest-drafted rookie quarterback to win a playoff game.
  • In Stroud’s first playoff game, the Texans scored their most points in any game since 2014, when Stroud was 13 years old.
  • Stroud led the Texans to their largest margin of victory in a playoff game in team history.
  • Stroud tied the record for passing touchdowns in a playoff game by a rookie, with three (and he did it by halftime).

Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 passing yards despite being benched with more than nine minutes remaining because Houston was up 31 points, another epic performance in what has been one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. He almost certainly will win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. You could already make the case that just five months into his career, Stroud is one of the five best quarterbacks in the league right now. If choosing a quarterback for your team going forward, forgetting contracts but caring about age, how many quarterbacks would you choose over Stroud? Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson. Josh Allen. Considering Joe Burrow is 27 and Stroud is 22, the Texans rookie might be no. 5 (if not higher).

Houston was already the first team in the Super Bowl era to win its division with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback (and that does not include having a rookie offensive coordinator too). Now it has reached the divisional round and has a chance to make the AFC championship game for the first time in franchise history. For this Texans team, making history is becoming routine.

Play-calling is like boxing; teams need to set up plays the same way boxers set up punches. The Texans’ offensive game plan was masterful, both in the way they set up their shots and the way they did it without exposing themselves to Cleveland defensive end (and possible Defensive Player of the Year) Myles Garrett. Houston shredded Cleveland’s defense by sending pre-snap motion and play-action fakes in one direction and then sending the ball in the other direction.

On Houston’s first touchdown, it had a second-and-6 at the 16-yard line. Tight end Brevin Jordan motions to the right before the snap, and Stroud fakes a handoff to his right after the snap. The entire Browns defense moves with Jordan’s motion, and then Stroud snaps a pass to Nico Collins to his left. Touchdown.

Look how many Browns defenders are moving in the wrong direction when Stroud throws the ball. They all have to change direction immediately, but it’s too late.

Cleveland’s defense relies on being hyper-aggressive. (Cleveland was second in the NFL in offside penalties this season, in part because of its pass rush trying to get a jump on the snap.) Houston used Cleveland’s aggression against it. Here is the Texans’ 76-yard touchdown pass to Jordan.

Jordan is just 2 yards downfield, but when Stroud throws this ball, six Browns defenders—more than half their defense—are at or behind the line of scrimmage. Houston found multiple ways to stifle Garrett. On one play the Browns would double-team him or have a tight end chip him. On the next they would fake the chip and throw a screen pass over his head.

Then the Texans mixed in an uppercut. Up three points with 71 seconds left in the first half, Houston faced a second-and-20 at midfield. The Texans lined up in the same formation as they did on their first touchdown, but mirrored. They motioned a blocker left before the snap and faked a handoff left after the snap. Wide receiver John Metchie ran a route to the right for a screen, just like Collins did to the left on the touchdown. The entire Browns defense, recognizing the play, moved to attack the screen. But Stroud did not throw the screen. He held onto the ball, rolled out of the pocket to his right, and launched the ball downfield to the left—across the entire defense—to a wide open tight end, Dalton Schultz. Touchdown.

Again, look how many Browns defenders are moving toward the right side of the field as Schultz is the only one moving left.

If Houston’s first score was faking the jab to throw a hook, this one was faking the jab and the hook to land the uppercut. Houston went up by 10 and its defense never allowed another point. Knockout.

The setting up of these plays is why Bobby Slowik, Houston’s first-year offensive coordinator, is already drawing interest from teams with head-coach vacancies. This is Kyle Shanahan-esque stuff. (Slowik, of course, spent the previous six years on Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco, and got his first coaching job under Kyle’s dad, Mike, in Washington.) As everyone is moving in one direction, Schultz is moving in the other. It is a metaphor perfectly on the nose—as everyone is zigging, the Texans are zagging.

Everything about this Texans season is a zag. In a year when quarterbacks are unusually injured or disappointing, Stroud has been a revelation. League-wide, quarterbacks are throwing shorter passes than ever, but not Stroud. His average pass travels farther downfield than any of the 29 quarterbacks with 300 attempts this season. He’s second in the NFL in EPA on throws of 20-plus yards. In a year when defense has ostensibly caught up to offense, Stroud, a rookie, threw interceptions at the lowest rate in the NFL (Joe Flacco threw more interceptions in his five regular-season games with the Browns than Stroud did all season). Stroud’s expected points added per dropback on throws that travel 20 or more yards downfield is the highest for a rookie quarterback in the Tru Media database, which goes back to 2000. Stroud is the third quarterback to lead the NFL in both passing yards per game and touchdown-to-interception ratio, along with Tom Brady and Joe Montana (Stroud did it as a rookie).

But most impressive has been his demeanor. Stroud has the ice in his veins—the it factor we’ve grown used to seeing from Burrow. He takes shots downfield the way we used to associate with Mahomes. Stroud can make every kind of throw, having the arm strength to thread balls into tight windows but the touch to drop them into the breadbasket of receivers like parachuting T-shirts from the rafters of a basketball game. And he is willing to stand in the pocket to take massive hits. Watching Stroud throughout this season it is easy to understand why Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper—whose team traded up to no. 1 and picked a quarterback other than Stroud in April—is throwing a drink at fans.

Stroud is just one part of a Texans team that is quickly becoming one of the biggest stories of the NFL season. Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans is one of the best coaching hires in years, and his defense on Saturday snagged two pick-sixes off Flacco. If the NFL had a Most Improved Player award, it should go to Collins, the Texans receiver who has more receiving yards and touchdowns in his third season than he had in his first two combined. And Texans running back Devin Singletary has the third-most rushing yards in the NFL since Week 9.

But the story of this game—and perhaps the story of the season—is Stroud’s arrival as the best rookie quarterback since at least Andrew Luck, who in 2012 led a different moribund AFC South team to double-digit wins and a playoff berth as a rookie. The Texans will move on to the divisional round with the chance to make more Houston history. After the game, Stroud was asked about one of his many Chuck Norris-esque facts—surpassing Michael Vick as the youngest quarterback to win a playoff game.

“Hopefully,” Stroud said, “we can make it two.”