The road ahead was steep for the Houston Texans when they came to Nashville on Dec. 17 to play the Tennessee Titans. Houston was depleted by injuries, missing two top receivers, their rookie linebacker, and their star quarterback.
No Nico Collins. No Tank Dell. No Will Anderson.
And no C.J. Stroud.
As he prepared to throw in the fourth quarter of Week 13’s loss to the New York Jets, Stroud was besieged by defenders who took him down in a New York minute. Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams brought Stroud to the ground. As Williams leveled him, Stroud fell backward, landing on his back and hitting the back of his head on the turf. He lay flat on the ground for a few seconds before medical personnel arrived.
Stroud left the game and did not return. He entered NFL concussion protocol. Every player diagnosed with a concussion must complete a five-step process before being cleared to return to play. (A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head. It can also be caused by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth.) Concussions can cause brain changes and sometimes even damage brain cells. Given Stroud’s condition, the Texans wisely chose not to play him. Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said Friday that Stroud’s “feeling better but is still in the concussion protocol.”
Playing in Stroud’s place was Case Keenum. A University of Houston graduate, Keenum, 35, has played for seven different teams over the course of his decade-long career. He’s back on the Texans for the first time since 2014 (and earning his first start since 2021). He was ready: “God’s made me who I am for this, for moments like this,” Keenum said. “I’m just trying to make sure that I’m ready when my number’s called.”
So the Texans were in hostile territory against a division rival, without its star quarterback and several starters. To make matters worse, the Titans decided to troll the Texans by wearing Oilers throwback jerseys. (Before the Texans, there were the Houston Oilers. Founded in 1960, the team featured “Columbia blue” jerseys with white/blue pants and helmets with an oil derrick. The team made several playoff runs from the late 1970s to early 1990s. But team owner Bud Adams followed through on his threat to move the team to Tennessee after the 1996 season, taking the colors and uniforms with him. His daughter Amy Adams Strunk is now owner.)
Tennessee began with a running game, relying on powerful running back Derrick Henry, who’s historically been a nightmare for the Texans defense. But Henry got stopped again and again. Things really heated up for Tennessee when QB Will Levis hurled a 33-yard completion to wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Two plays later, on 2nd and goal, he faked a handoff to Henry but took it himself, running for his first career rushing touchdown.
Case Keenum had trouble early on: he was intercepted by Titans defensive back Elijah Molden, who returned the ball all the way to the end zone for a pick-six. That 44-yard defensive touchdown gave Tennessee a 13-0 lead. Houston was held out of the end zone (and off the scoreboard) until the final seconds of the half when Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn hit a field goal to make it 13-3 at halftime.
And it was Fairbairn who provided the game’s only third-quarter points. With Tennessee stalling out on offense and the Texans unable to get anything going, Fairbairn carried the team on his back – or, more precisely, his leg. He launched a 27-yard field goal about nine minutes into the second half. And after another Texans drive stalled, Fairbairn delivered a 52-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights — leaving Houston trailing just 13-9 with 2:42 left in the third quarter.
The scoring slowed practically to a stop in the fourth quarter, but midway through Titans kicker Nick Folk drilled a field goal to make it 16-9. The Titans padded their lead, but the Texans responded quickly. Keenum threw to tight end Dalton Schultz, who unbelievably managed to wrest the ball away from Titans defensive back Kevin MacCready. Then Keenum hurled his first TD of the game – an end-zone strike to tight end Noah Brown. The game was tied at 16.
The last few minutes of the game unfolded in a whirlwind of close calls and hard hits. With just seconds left, Houston brought in Davis Mills at quarterback. But Mills got sacked by Terrell Edmonds on the final play of regulation. With both teams still tied, the game headed to overtime.
On the first play of OT, Levis suffered his fifth sack of the game – this time, courtesy of Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard. But Keenum bounced back, throwing a strike to receiver Chris Moore, who practically snatched the ball out the hands of Texans cornerback Desmond King. Texans defender Derek Barnett smothered Levis on the next play.
Keenum too, got sacked as the Texans’ drive stalled out. First it was Titans defensive tackle Marlon Davidson; then it was DT Denico Autry. But it was Will Levis who caught some of the worst blows. On 3rd and 8th, Desmond King blitzed Levis again. He and Texans DT Sheldon Rankins combined to knock the quarterback down. It was Levis’ seventh sack – and his last. After the play, Levis lay on the ground in pain, clutching his lower leg. (He later left.)
After Tennessee punted, Houston took over. Running back Devin Singletary took off for a 34-yard touchdown. But the score was nullified by a holding penalty. Thankfully, kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn came to the rescue, hitting a 54-yard field goal to help Houston win 19-16.
Keenum finished 23-for-36, throwing for 229 yards and a touchdown despite an interception and four sacks. Levis went 17-for-26, sacked seven times by the Texans defense. Henry had his worst performance as a starter, with just nine yards on 16 carries. And Fairbairn was perfect, hitting all four field goals and the lone extra point to seal the Texans’ win.