‘Calm in the chaos’: How Texans QB C.J. Stroud beat the Bengals

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) runs off the field after a win over the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn) (Emilee Chinn, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CINCINNATI, Ohio – C.J. Stroud had temporarily lost his grip on the game and the football. A rare misfire from the Texans’ ultra-mature rookie quarterback only increased his motivation and resolve to take decisive action to win a game against a Super Bowl contender in their stadium.

Just when things were looking bleak for the Texans, Stroud took control again Sunday afternoon.

Stroud threw his second interception of the season in the fourth quarter as Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt undercut a throw intended for wide receiver Tank Dell with the turnover setting up a Joe Mixon touchdown run. A subsequent three-and-out series by the Texans set the stage for the Bengals tying the game at 27-27 with 1:33 remaining in regulation on an Evan McPherson field goal.

In the span of a few minutes, the Texans’ 27-17 lead they built on a Stroud touchdown run and an earlier touchdown pass had evaporated. With the game on the line after his miscue, Stroud held a sideline conversation with Texans coach DeMeco Ryans.

His message foretold what was about to happen.

“I went to DeMeco and let him know, ‘I got you, we are going to win this game,’ and he looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘I trust you,’ Stroud said. “It’s amazing to have trust in your head coach as a rookie.”

Ryans’ faith in Stroud, the second overall pick in the draft and a two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, was justified again. Ninety-three seconds were remaining and Stroud manufactured a six-play, 55-yard game-winning drive for the second consecutive week in the final two minutes, something that hasn’t happened in four decades for a rookie in the NFL.

After completions of 25 and 22 yards to tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver Noah Brown, kicker Matt Ammendola, elevated from the practice squad as the replacement for an injured Ka’imi Fairbairn, nailed a 38-yard field goal as time expired for the game-winning field goal.

Because of Stroud, Brown, running back Devin Singletary’s career-high 150 rushing yards and a stout defense that twice intercepted Bengals star quarterback Joe Burrow as defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins sacked him three times, the Texans improved to 5-4 for the season and have reached the five-game victory mark for the first time since the 2019 season. If the season ended today, the Texans would qualify for the playoffs.

“I never get down in the dumps because I know we have a quarterback like that,” defensive end Jonathan Greenard said.

Having an accurate, poised and confident quarterback with the arm talent and clutch ability of Stroud is making all the difference in the Texans’ suddenly bright outlook. It’s a quarterback-driven league and the Texans have an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner who’s starting to enter the NFL Most Valuable Player conversation. One week after throwing the game-winning touchdown to Dell and passing for an NFL rookie record 470 yards and five touchdowns to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Stroud has done it again.

“The thing about CJ is it’s the calm in the chaos,” Ryans said. “He doesn’t waver. He’s confident that he’s going to make plays, and the moment isn’t too big for him.

“The calmness starts for him in that he’s played in a lot of big games at Ohio State. He’s been under the big lights before. They’re bright lights, and he’s made big plays. He doesn’t get wide-eyed when the moment comes.”

Stroud completed 23 of 39 passes for 356 yards, one touchdown, rushing for another score and had a 87.1 passer rating.

At 22 years old, Stroud is the unquestioned leader of the Texans and was voted a team captain by his teammates.

He is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 2,500 or more yards, 15 or more touchdowns and five or fewer interceptions in their first nine career games. He’s one of four quarterbacks in NFL history o eclipse the 2,500 passing mark in their first nine starts, joining Justin Herbert, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

He has passed for 2,626 yards to rank second in the NFL and has 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions. He’s on pace to finish the season with 4,960 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions.

“Nobody panicked,” Dell said. “Everybody stayed level-headed. C.J. has all the ability in the world. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. There are a lot of great quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s already putting his stamp on that. When you’ve got 7 back there, you don’t panic because you know what he brings to the table.”

The Texans have emerged as a surprise playoff contender, ranking seventh in the AFC playoff standings behind the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. The Texans have beaten the Jaguars and Steelers and lost to the Ravens. They’re an improving, ascending team.

“I’m excited about the way our team battled,” Ryans said. “I’m so proud of our team and excited for them to be in a tight football game vs. a playoff football team and come up with a win. That’s where we’re headed as a team. We’re showing that we’re a good team, and we’re showing that we can win tight games, so I’m really proud of the way our guys battled.

“No one wavered on our sideline, and that’s what I love. I love the resolve of our team. Everyone believed that we were going to win, everyone put in the work and made the plays to help us win this game. It starts with the confidence that you have to have to win these tight games.”

This marked the Texans’ first win over a team not in the AFC South division in 15 games going back to a win over the Detroit Lions in 2020.

Banged up on both sides of the football with running back Dameon Pierce, fullback Andrew Beck, wide receiver Nico Collins, safety Jimmie Ward, linebacker Henry To’oTo’o were all out with injuries.

While Burrow threw two touchdowns, he was intercepted twice.

Meanwhile, Brown finished with a career-high 172 receiving yards on seven receptions.

And Stroud keeps getting the job done and overcoming adversity, as he has his entire life.

“That boy is special,” Texans linebacker Blake Cashman said. “To have a quarterback to be able to do the things he’s doing, it’s awesome to see, especially as a rookie. It’s incredible. In order to get where we want to be, we need him to keep playing, and playing at a high level.

“The offense is rolling, so when you have an offense that’s playing well, that frees up the defense to be able to play more aggressive, which as a defensive player you’re biting your chops to get those opportunities, and now it’s all about not messing it up.”

Stroud doesn’t dwell on mistakes like his two lost fumbles, one on a questionable officiating call, another on a botched center exchange with Michael Deiter.

The interception to Taylor-Britt bothered Stroud, but he moved on from the mistake and won the game.

“Cam made a hell of a play,” Stroud said. “I’ve been playing against him since college and have a lot of respect for that guy. He’s really smart. We ran that play the drive before fr a big completion. He told me too, ‘I knew it was coming.’ It’s something I can’t do in the future but it’s a great learning experience.

“I was a little upset but at the end of the day, what is that going to do? It’s not going to do anything for me. I have to move on to the next play. I had such a great game at that point. A lot of great plays, I can’t just harp on that negative play and go back to what I was doing. The next drive, they put the ball in my hands and we made plays.”

The confidence in Stroud just keeps growing and growing inside and outside of the Texans’ locker room.

“That last drive, right away, I knew it was that time again,” offensive tackle George Fant said. “It feels great to have that confidence knowing you’re going to win.”

A week ago, Singletary called Stroud the truth.

On Sunday, Singletary was asked what would he call the California native now.

“Just being him, he’s that guy,” Singletary said. “He keeps finding ways to win. He’s that guy. Whatever you want to call him, he HIM.”

Aaron Wilson is a Texans and NFL reporter for KPRC 2 and click2houston.com

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