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C.J. Stroud on Texans' wild-card rout over Browns: 'This is a dream come true'

The Texans made their postseason return in emphatic fashion.

Houston dominated Cleveland in all phases during Saturday's opening game of Super Wild Card Weekend, riding a hot start by rookie C.J. Stroud and a defense intent on scoring points of its own to a 45-14 win over the Browns.

"This is a dream come true," Stroud said Saturday of the victory. "How close we are as a team. We're really, really close. Offense, defense, special teams. We all mend well together, and just to have another week to go at it with my brothers is a blessing, so I'm super excited for this team and the city of Houston, and I'm just blessed to be in the position I am."

Stroud, in his first NFL postseason game ever and the team's first time back in the playoffs since the 2019 season, looked every bit the veteran while going for 274 yards, three touchdowns and a near-perfect 157.2 passer rating on 16-of-21 passing.

The 22-year-old was sharp early, but a pair of drops on his first drive and a stall on his second resulted in just three points. From there, he led three first-half touchdown drives of 75, 76 and 71 yards.

He ended all on passes, which tied the postseason rookie record for TD throws in a game.

"C.J. is the reason why we are in this position," Texans head coach Demeco Ryans said of the performance. "He's special. A special young man. A special player. Continues to shine no matter how big the moment is. Our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry that weight. ... When you have a young player who can shoulder the load of your team and the way the team is behind him, the confidence that he gives our entire team. It's so cool to watch."

For much of that first half, the teams kept it tight, trading blows on alternating drives.

But Houston's defense proved slightly stouter, and Stroud's touchdown at the tail end of the second quarter, a perfect 37-yard touch pass to tight end Dalton Schultz with 1:11 remaining, gave the Texans a buffer that seemed absolutely imperative in a tightly contested battle heading into the second half.

It instead turned out Stroud could largely relax in the second half. He played just 11 snaps as the Texans D turned up the heat and overwhelmed Cleveland into zero points and two back-breaking turnovers the rest of the way.

On the Browns' first drive of the third quarter, Cleveland marched 48 yards on seven plays, and was in position with a first down at Houston's 34-yard line to get things back to a one-score game either through a field goal or TD.

The Texans, who had put stress on quarterback Joe Flacco throughout the first half, nearly got home again on the next snap. Derek Barnett broke through for a pressure, to which Flacco responded with a panicked throw in no man's land between his closest two targets.

Houston cornerback Steven Nelson was waiting there, and he collected the wayward pass for the first pick-six of his career.

On the Browns' next possession -- this time without an ounce of momentum behind them -- Flacco committed another deadly turnover on fourth-and-2.

Linebacker Christian Harris undercut his throw and streaked 36 yards the other way for Houston's second INT TD of the day.

"Never seen back-to-back pick-sixes like that," Ryans said after the game. "We needed our defenses to step. We know Joe (Flacco) had a big day against us a couple weeks ago, and we knew it was a challenge in the passing game. For Nelly (Steven Nelson) to make the pick that he made and also see (Christian) Harris. Those are big-time plays. It was one of our focuses coming into the game was to attack the football. But to attack it and go score -- that changes the game for us."

In the span of five plays from scrimmage and 1:59 of game time, the Texans went from likely victors in a possible shootout to wild-card juggernauts with a commanding 38-14 lead.

Devin Singletary's 19-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter following Cleveland's second of an eventual three consecutive turnovers on downs was Houston's final salvo.

Stroud took a seat with 9:22 remaining in the game, having thrown for the third-most yards this season against the NFL's No. 1 passing defense -- despite attempting just five passes in the second half.

At an age of 22 years and 102 days, he became the youngest quarterback in league history to win a playoff game and joined Flacco as one of four first-round QBs since 1967 to do so as a rookie, per NFL Research.

His offensive line helped make it possible by preventing Cleveland's fearsome pass rush from converting a single sack. Singletary found room to roam behind them for 5.1 yards per carry.

Four different Houston defenders had a sack, including Barnett, who forced the first pick-six, and Harris, who scored the second one.

It was a complete demolition -- one that cut short a potential storybook season for Flacco, the soon-to-be 39-year-old who came off the couch to revitalize the Browns' season but will now head back to one for the remainder of the playoffs.

The Texans' tale, however, is to be continued.

After arriving to the playoffs far ahead of schedule, led by a rookie QB-head coach pairing, Houston performed far beyond expectations to rumble into the AFC Divisional Round with a head full of steam.

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