Fans packed out NRG Stadium on Jan. 13 as the Houston Texans took on the Cleveland Browns at home for Super Wild Card Weekend. It was Houston’s first playoff game since January 2020, when quarterback Deshaun Watson led Houston to a comeback victory against the Buffalo Bills. (Ironically, Watson now plays for Cleveland after being traded there.)
Cleveland started resurgent 39-year-old quarterback Joe Flacco. But neither he nor his talented teammates – tight end David Njoku, receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end Myles Garrett – could stop the Houston Texans. Thanks to outstanding play by rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and back-to-back pick-sixes by the defense, the Texans steamrolled the Browns to earn their first playoff win in four years.
Houston scored first. Stroud threw to wide receiver Nico Collins for a 38-yard gain, taking the Texans to first and goal at Cleveland’s three-yard line. The Browns managed to keep Houston out of the end zone, but Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn drilled a 21-yard field goal to make it 3-0 early in the first quarter.
Cleveland answered quickly. Flacco threw to tight end David Njoku, who made the catch for a gain of 45 yards. Flacco tossed to Njoku again, gaining eight more; Amari Cooper picked up another 14 yards as he ran into the red zone for first and goal. On 3rd and goal, Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt leapt into the end zone for a touchdown. The Browns took a 7-3 lead after the extra-point kick by kicker Riley Patterson.
Houston running back Devin Singletary got the next drive rolling, running through Cleveland defenders to pick up 29 yards. Stroud then tossed a pass to receiver John Metchie III to earn 27 more. He subsequently threw a strike to Nico Collins, who tumbled forward into the end zone. Houston went up 10-7.
Cleveland got the ball back just before the first quarter ended. And Flacco sprang into action, hurling a pass up the middle to tight end Harrison Bryant with 10 seconds left in the first. Less than three minutes into the second, Flacco threw a shovel pass to running back Kareem Hunt, who barreled into the end zone for a second touchdown. Cleveland took a 14-10 lead.
But that would be their last lead of the game. Houston responded rapidly when Stroud threw to tight end Brevin Jordan, who sprinted down the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown. Houston now led 17-14 with 12 minutes left in the half.
Houston’s defense kept Cleveland from scoring any points on their next drive. Flacco was sacked by Texans defensive end Derek Barnett, forcing a punt. After the Texans took over, Cleveland safety Ronnie Hickman got flagged for pass interference after grabbing the jersey of Texans tight end Dalton Schultz. That penalty cost Cleveland 12 yards and kept Houston’s drive alive. Several plays later, Stroud threw to a wide-open Schultz for a 37-yard touchdown. The Texans led the Browns 24-14 at the half.
During halftime, Houston rapper and restauranteur Bun B thrilled the hometown crowd with a special performance. Then Houston rap legends Paul Wall, Mike Jones and Slim Thug reunited to perform “Still Tippin’” on the halftime stage.
Houston got the ball to start the second half, but the Texans offense came up empty and was forced to punt. Luckily, the Texans defense stepped in, scoring two huge back-to-back turnovers. The first happened when Flacco was intercepted by Houston cornerback Steven Nelson, who caught the ball and then took off for an 82-yard run to the end zone. It was the first pick-six for the Texans this season and the first ever for Nelson. His highlight-reel play helped Houston take a commanding 31-14 lead with 5:23 left in the third.
Cleveland got the ball back and would have gone three-and-out, had they not elected to go for it on 4th down. That proved to be ill-advised: Flacco got picked off again, this time by linebacker Christian Harris – who ran to the end zone for a 36-yard defensive touchdown. As popcorn rained down from the stands nearby, Harris celebrated his pick-six with a jubilant Texans team, now up 38-14.
The Browns’ next drive was a lot like the others – stymied by a stalwart Texans defense. Once again, Cleveland chose to go for it on fourth down – and this time, Flacco got sacked by Christian Harris, who had just scored on defense. Cleveland turned the ball over on downs. And Houston made them pay when running back Devin Singletary rushed in for a 19-yard touchdown. After the extra-point kick by Fairbairn, Houston led 45-14.
Cleveland continued to struggle in the game’s final moments. With under two minutes left, Flacco was sacked (again) by Texans defensive tackle Kurt Hinish. That led to yet another turnover on downs, and the Houston Texans held on to blow out the Cleveland Browns 45-14. At 22 years and 102 days old, Stroud passed Michael Vick to become the youngest quarterback ever to win a playoff game.
“I’m super blessed to be considered with a great name like Michael Vick, who was my favorite quarterback growing up,” Stroud said after the game. “It’s been a heck of a year and I thank God I can just go another week with my teammates,” he added. “This is like a dream come true.”