Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has led the Houston Texans to their first winning season since 2019.
Now he wants a playoff berth.
Stroud and Houston can earn that postseason spot Saturday night with a win in the regular-season finale on the road against another 9-7 playoff hopeful, the Indianapolis Colts.
Indianapolis also would wrap up a postseason berth with a win. In addition, the Houston-Indianapolis winner would capture the AFC South title and get a home playoff game if the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7) lose their Sunday road game against the Tennessee Titans.
“At the end of the day with this game, we have to execute,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “That’s what it comes down to. … You can get caught up in the hype of how big it is. Yeah, everyone understands that, but what does it matter when the ball is snapped? It doesn’t. It matters about you executing, being where you are supposed to be and winning that snap.”
Stroud, in his first game back from a concussion that put him on the sideline for two games, was 24 of 32 for 213 yards last week, patiently picking apart the Titans with short passes. He fired a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brevin Jordan in the second quarter and led his team to a turnover-free performance.
And in doing so, he reminded some that the uproar from last season’s meaningless Week 18 game matching the Texans and Colts was much ado about nothing. Then-Houston coach Lovie Smith went for two and the win after a late touchdown — and got it.
When the victory cost the Texans the No. 1 overall pick that eventually went to Carolina via a trade with the Chicago Bears, Houston selected Stroud at No. 2 right after the Panthers tabbed Bryce Young. While Young has struggled amid franchise dysfunction, Stroud and Ryans have turned Houston into an immediate contender.
“(The) offense has done a really nice job all throughout the year,” Ryans said. “Starting with Bobby (Slowik, the offensive coordinator) as he’s led the offense through many different guys being in. … It starts there, just being able to manage the roster and being able to work with whoever is available and still finding a way to get it done.”
Indianapolis enters Week 18 with the AFC’s final wild-card spot in hand. Had things turned out differently, this could have been a matchup of rookie quarterbacks.
Anthony Richardson, drafted by the Colts No. 4 overall last April, provided a tantalizing glimpse of his vast potential during a 31-20 thumping of Houston on Sept. 17, running for two first-quarter touchdowns before leaving due to a concussion.
However, Richardson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5, forcing the Colts to play backup Gardner Minshew. And for the most part, Minshew has done the job, including a 23-20 home win over the Las Vegas Raiders last week. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown while avoiding the mistakes that have spotted some of his losses.
Now Indianapolis stands one win away from the playoffs.
Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said, “For us, we just understand what’s at stake. These are the type of games you play for. It’s not really any much more motivation, anything more that needs to be said to get you ready to prepare.”
Running back Jonathan Taylor added, “Same mentality, but this time it’s everything you got — and it’s been like that the past few weeks.”
The running game figures to be crucial to the Colts’ success. Taylor, in his second game back from thumb surgery, piled up 96 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries last week. If the former NFL rushing champion can enjoy that type of game again, it would give Minshew more advantageous passing situations.
Another key will be which team can best crank up its solid pass rush. Indianapolis’ 49 sacks rank fifth in the NFL and the Texans aren’t far behind with 45, tied for 10th. The defense that does a better job of keeping its opponent behind the chains could decide a playoff spot.
–Field Level Media