C.J. Stroud has seen first-hand what exceptional football teams look like.
In 2019, in Stroud's senior year at Rancho Cucamonga High School, the Cougars reached the state semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 Playoffs. In his junior year at Ohio State, the Buckeyes reached the College Football Playoff Semifinals.
What made those teams special, of course, was the talent on the roster – including Stroud at quarterback – but the Texans rookie admits it takes more than pure athletic talent to win at any level, including the NFL.
"The closest teams I've been on were the best teams," Stroud said. "It's something that happens naturally. You can't force it."
The cohesiveness of the 2023 Texans for Stroud began way before their first regular season, or even preseason game kicked off.
From the get-go when Stroud arrived on Kirby Drive with his new teammates, everyone had a winning mindset, including him. It wasn't a "try to win" but rather a "we're going out to win"-type mindset the rookie signal-caller came in with.
Everyone in the locker room has reciprocated that feeling and from there the confidence grew.
"It really was early on, probably even in rookie minicamp being with the rookies, that's when my confidence started to build up," Stroud said. "It's been good because we've actually been able to win games."
The Texans prepare to play the Colts on Saturday with the organization's first trip to the playoffs since 2019 on the line.
It has been nearly three months since the Texans last faced the Colts, whom they lost to in Week 2 at NRG Stadium, 31-20.
In the time since, Houston has won nine games and enters the final week of the regular season in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South.
"I think our team has grown as a whole," Stroud said. "I think we've put multiple games together to make our team really stick like glue. We've come into a great situation now starting to pick up our chemistry better than ever. It's like night and day from Week 2."
Texans coach DeMeco Ryans has had a front row seat to watching this team grow over the past 15 weeks in his first year at the helm.
Despite some injuries during the season and the natural flow of players coming and going during a year to fill in for those spots, Ryans has seen the team jell, one of the major factors to their success.
"That's what you want. You want a close team," Ryans said. "You want a connected team and I feel like our guys are connected. We had a lot of different guys in and out at various times throughout the season.
"But our guys are connected, they are a tight team and that's why I feel like we're playing better because of that."
Now, Stroud gets his first shot to shine in primetime on Saturday night.
It is the first primetime game of the rookie's career, which he is excited for. But nothing changes for him and the Texans.
They still have an ultimate goal in mind – be playing next week in the playoffs.
"You don't want to make it too high or make it too low, just a regular game," Stroud said. "Like I told my teammates earlier, it's the same game we've been playing since we were young. Nothing changes. Just have to prepare hard and do everything we need to do to try and win this game. I think that'll take us home.
"I think we've built something special, but we've got to just finish."