Playoff Weekend: Rookie C.J. Stroud to lead the Texans against playoff-tested Joe Flacco and the Browns

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Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Evan Engram (17) is tackled by Houston Texans linebacker Neville Hewitt (43) during the second half of an NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

HOUSTON (AP) — C.J. Stroud and the rest of Houston’s rookies started a group chat soon after the draft to discuss their goals.

“And we were like, ‘Man, we’re going to be the foundation that changes this thing around,’ and lo and behold, that’s … what came to be true,” Stroud said.

And it happened much quicker than most anyone predicted for the Texans (10-7), who will return to playoffs for the first time since 2019 when they host Cleveland (11-6) in the wild-card round Saturday.

Stroud, the second overall pick, is the only rookie starting quarterback to make the playoffs this season, and the 22-year-old will face off against the oldest QB in the postseason in Cleveland’s Joe Flacco, who turns 39 three days after the game.

Stroud will face the Browns for the first time. He missed Houston’s 36-22 loss to them on Dec. 24 while recovering from a concussion. The Texans were also missing rookie defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the No. 3 pick in the draft, and linebacker Blake Cashman in that game.

Cleveland knows it will be a challenge to contain Stroud, who has thrown for 4,108 yards with 23 touchdowns.

“He’s awesome,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I remember watching him early because we had some crossover tape and getting ready to play Baltimore. I know … that was his first game, and I think even in that game, you saw some plays and some throws where you knew right away that kid was really, really talented.”

Stroud’s emergence has transformed a team that had combined for just seven wins in the previous two seasons. The Texans’ run of futility included some drama with Deshaun Watson, who refused to play after requesting a trade. He was later traded to Cleveland.

Watson was under center for the Texans during their last playoff run in 2019 but played just six games for the Browns this season before having season-ending shoulder surgery. After the backups on the Browns’ roster didn’t work out, Cleveland signed Flacco off the street.

Flacco went 4-1 as a starter to help the Browns to just their third playoff appearance since their 1999 expansion rebirth, but second in four seasons under Stefanski.

This will be Flacco’s 17th postseason game — he didn’t play in his final one with the Ravens in 2019 — and 16th playoff start. His first playoff game was on Jan. 4, 2009, when the Ravens beat the Dolphins 27-9 and Stroud was just 8 years old.

Flacco was asked about the importance of playoff experience.

“I’m sure there’s a level of importance to it in terms of letting the football game come to you,” he said. “Not necessarily riding too high and riding too low when things happen, realizing that it is another football game, but ultimately the most important thing in playoff games is executing your fundamentals to the highest degree. And I don’t think that that necessarily takes experience to do. It just takes you staying levelheaded and playing within yourself.”

Houston’s first-year coach DeMeco Ryans, who turned 39 in July, balked when a reporter called Flacco old before joking about it.

“It’s impressive that Joe is still operating at a high level,” Ryans said. “There is no let-up in the arm strength, the decision making — it’s all still elite, at a high level. … So, it is impressive to see a guy as young as he is making plays, but he’s the reason why that team is in the position they’re in right now, because he has that experience, he’s been there before, and I know that those guys believe in him.”

ROAD WARRIOR

Flacco will never match Tom Brady’s record of seven Super Bowl wins. And it’s unlikely Cleveland’s quarterback will still be playing at 45 like Brady did.

But Flacco can surpass Brady this week in one department.

Flacco has seven playoff road wins, tying him with Brady for the most in league history. Those victories include two against Brady and New England, one in the 2009 season and another three years later in the AFC championship game. Flacco and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that year.

Flacco, who is 7-5 on the road (the Super Bowl is considered a neutral site), said the key to travel success is keeping things simple.

“It just goes back to doing the basics the right way, not overthinking what it means to go on the road, just going and playing a good football game,” Flacco said. “And when the dust settles, you just pick your head up and see where you are.”

Even if they get past the Texans, the Browns could spend the entire postseason on the road. Flacco’s experience there could come in handy — to a point.

“I think it’s going to help a lot,” wide receiver Amari Cooper said. “But nothing really matters. You have to live in the moment, be where your feet are. The past, the future, it’s all about the present.”

STILL HERE

Though it’s been four years since the Texans were in the playoffs, there’s hardly anyone remaining on the roster from the 2019 team, which beat Buffalo before falling to Kansas City. The only holdovers are left tackle Laremy Tunsil, long snapper Jon Weeks and kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn.

“It’s a blessing to be in this position after four years of tough football,” Tunsil said. “Just got to be thankful for where I’m at and just be thankful for this opportunity.”

CAN YOU KICK IT?

The Browns finished their recent win over the Texans without a kicker or punter. Things are slightly better for Cleveland now.

Kicker Dustin Hopkins is out with a hamstring injury he sustained on an ill-advised and fruitless chase of Houston’s Dameon Pierce on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Cleveland’s special teams issues multiplied when punter Corey Boroquez, who also holds, hurt his quadriceps.

That forced Stefanski to go for 2-point conversions and try to convert every fourth down in the second half. Things got so desperate that safety D’Anthony Bell kicked off.

At one point, tight end David Njoku begged Stefanski to let him kick.

On Saturday, Riley Patterson, who kicked for Jacksonville in last year’s playoffs, will handle kicking duties. Boroquez returned last week and is good to go.

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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