The Texans are in the playoffs.
After double-digit loss seasons in 2020, 2021 and 2022, Houston hired former Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans as head coach and went 10-7 in 2023 to win the AFC South. They'll host the Cleveland Browns (11-6) in a Wild Card playoff game on Saturday. It's the second time they've met in three weeks, and the visitors thumped the Texans the day of Christmas Eve, 36-22. Here are five things to watch when their postseason rumble kicks off at 3:30 p.m. inside NRG Stadium.
1) C.J.'s back – When these squads tussled in Week 16, quarterback C.J. Stroud was still in the concussion protocol and did not play. He's guided Houston to a pair of victories in the two games since, and provided a lift to the entire organization. In those two wins, Stroud's completed a combined 75.9 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 118.1.
Tight end Dalton Schutlz described the shift in the team's mindset when Stroud is under center.
"It's huge," Schultz said. "I don't care what the score is, we're never out of the game because we know the confidence that he's been able to build in himself. If we're down three scores, if we're up three scores, we know Seven's coming to play."
Browns cornerback Greg Newsome, II and the rest of the Cleveland defense have been impressed with Stroud, and know the challenge in th'is second matchup is drastically different than the one three weeks ago.
"CJ is not just the best rookie quarterback, but he's one of the best quarterbacks in the whole entire NFL," Newsome said. "So, he presents a lot of challenges for us, but I think we're up for the challenge."
2) Pump up the pass rush – In the last meeting, the Texans played without defensive end Will Anderson, Jr. because of an ankle injury, and sacks leader Jonathan Greenard was on the field for only three snaps before exiting with an ankle injury as well.
Both players practiced on Thursday and spoke afterward in the locker room about their excitement to play Cleveland. They're each listed as questionable for the matchup, but they're each pumped up for the playoffs.
"Demeco said it earlier during the week: 'You don't get too many rematches, especially against these teams in the playoffs,' Greenard said. "We're excited. We understood what they did last time and we'll definitely try to change that result."
Greenard led the Texans with 12.5 sacks this season, while Anderson finished with a franchise rookie record seven. Against Cleveland in Week 16, Houston didn't tally any sacks. They did, however, hit Joe Flacco eight times.
3) No Flacco flings – Speaking of Flacco, he's been nothing short of brilliant since joining the Browns late in the season. He took that brilliance to another level in the win over Houston, torching the Texans with six completions of 21 yards or more, including a 75-yarder and a 53-yarder to wide receiver Amari Cooper.
He's guided Cleveland to four wins in five starts, tossed 13 touchdowns in those games, but also been picked off eight times.
"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. And he has a really good surrounding cast, and he's able to get the ball to."
Defensive coordinator Matt Burke pointed out that while Flacco's able to throw it deep, he's doing so in a different manner than in the past.
"I think people are sort of stereotyping him a little bit," Burke said. "If you've watched his last four games or whatever it is, he's making a lot of plays out of the pocket. Even against us, he got loose a couple times. He broke out of some sacks. I think people are saying he's just a pocket guy, [but] he's made a lot of off-schedule plays and moved around really well. So, I think to underestimate him or look at him based on age would be a disservice to how he's been playing."
4) Limit big plays – Of the 11 passes Cooper caught for 265 yards in the last matchup, six went for 19 yards or longer. Flacco hit tight end David Njoku for a 21-yard touchdown as well. The Browns feasted with big plays, but Burke emphasized the Texans "need to take away some of the explosives and big plays", and explained how to do so.
"Whoever is playing for us, that's going to come back to working our techniques, playing the calls that we're calling, executing what we need to execute," Burke said. "Similar to when we doubled up on Tennessee and had two games in three weeks, talked about it then, it's a new game. They'll have some new players, they have some new pieces moving in and out, so we'll see how it lines up on Saturday."
5) Contrasting Styles – The Texans took the ball away from opponents 10 more times than they turned it over. Houston actually had the fewest turnovers in the NFL this season with 14.
The Browns, meanwhile, were worst in the NFL with 37 turnovers. Only six teams in the NFL had worse marks in the turnover differential category than Cleveland's minus-9. The Texans picked Flacco off twice in the first matchup, but one of those interceptions was in the end zone as the half expired. Getting points off the takeaways would go a long way towards helping Houston win.