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Surprising Texans prepare for divisional round as C.J. Stroud's superlative rookie season continues

HOUSTON (AP) — Virtually no one expected the Houston Texans to make the playoffs this season, much less win after they got in.

Playing in the postseason for the first time in four years, the Texans are heading to the divisional round after a 45-14 dismantling of the Cleveland Browns.

A year ago, Houston won just three games, netting the No. 2 overall pick in the draft that the team used to select quarterback C.J. Stroud out of Ohio State. Stroud had plenty of talent, but he hardly was expected to turn the franchise around instantaneously.

Look at the Texans now.

“Everybody counted us out. ... Houston versus the world,” Stroud said. “It’s cool just to be able to be playing at a high level right now. It’s not about what people say.”

Right now, the NFL world is raving about the 22-year-old Stroud after he threw three touchdown passes in his playoff debut to become the youngest quarterback to win a postseason game.

Stroud picked apart Cleveland’s No. 1-ranked defense on Saturday, piling up 236 yards passing and throwing TD passes of 15, 76 and 37 yards before halftime as Houston built a 24-14 lead.

Coach DeMeco Ryans said Stroud has improved every week and that he showed no moment is too big for him.

“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 because he’s such a special player,” Ryans said. “I know he’s had a special season, and we’re looking forward to keep moving on.”

After Stroud put the Texans on top with his stellar first half, Houston’s defense finished things off after halftime. Steven Nelson and Christian Harris returned interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the third quarter.

“Those are big-time plays,” Ryans said. “One of our focuses coming into the game was to attack the football. But to attack it and to go score, that changes the game for us.”

The Texans are the seventh team in NFL history to have multiple pick-6s in a playoff game and the first since Seattle did it against Washington on Jan. 5, 2008.

WHAT’S WORKING

Stroud was 16 of 21 for 274 yards Saturday. The Texans were so dominant that he sat down for good with about nine minutes left. His 157.2 passer rating was the best by a rookie with at least 20 passing attempts in a game in NFL history.

Stroud was helped by an offensive line that kept superstar pass rusher Myles Garrett and the rest of Cleveland’s defense from getting to him. The Texans didn’t give up a sack and Stroud was hit just once.

“We’re playing our best ball as of right now these last two weeks, last three weeks really, and that’s really what you want,” Stroud said.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

After a game such as the Texans had Saturday, it’s difficult to identify many flaws. But Houston allowed receptions of 45 and 47 yards in the first quarter against the Browns before shoring up its pass defense.

The Texans will need to eliminate those big plays if they hope to succeed against Baltimore this week.

STOCK UP

WR John Metchie, who missed his entire rookie year last season undergoing treatment for leukemia, had three receptions for a career-high 44 yards and added a 9-yard run against Cleveland.

“I’m really proud of him for his journey and all that he’s been through,” Ryans said. “No one’s been through it tougher than him. ... Nobody works harder on their craft than Metchie and it was good to see the success come from it in our first playoff game.”

STOCK DOWN

RB Dameon Pierce, who ran for 939 yards as a rookie last season, had three carries for zero yards Saturday as Houston continues to use Devin Singletary as its primary running back.

INJURIES

WR Noah Brown was placed on the injured reserve Monday after injuring his shoulder Saturday. ... LB Denzel Perryman injured his ribs in the third quarter against Cleveland. ... DE Jerry Hughes missed Saturday’s game with an ankle injury and it’s unclear if he’ll return this week.

KEY NUMBER

45 — The Texans scored their most points in a playoff game in franchise history and tied for the third most in any game in their history. It was the most they had scored since a 45-21 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 30, 2014.

NEXT STEPS

The Texans will play in the divisional round for the fifth time in franchise history on Saturday at top-seeded Baltimore, and will try to advance to the AFC title game for the first time.

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