At different times, both the Houston Texans and the Cleveland Browns placed their fortunes in the hands of Deshaun Watson.
Both teams have also faced the challenge of replacing Watson but found very different solutions to that problem.
After trading Watson to Cleveland, the Texans selected C.J. Stroud second overall in last April’s draft and appear to have found a franchise quarterback.
Stroud’s 100.8 passer rating is the third highest by a rookie since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. At 22 years old, Stroud had the lowest interception rate of any qualified quarterback this season (1.0%) while ranking third in yards per attempt (8.23).
Stroud threw for 264 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 18 as Houston clinched the AFC South and ended a three-year playoff drought.
The Browns’ answer at quarterback after Watson broke a bone in his throwing shoulder may be even more remarkable.
Cleveland pulled Joe Flacco out of retirement, and the 38-year-old veteran may have saved the Browns’ season by sparking a four-game winning streak before sitting in Week 18. From Weeks 14 through 17, Flacco led the NFL with 340.5 passing yards per game and 15 completions of 25 yards or more, while his 11 touchdown passes were tied for the league lead over that stretch.
Flacco will make his 16th career NFL playoff start and Stroud will make his postseason debut when the Browns (11-6) take on the Texans (10-7) at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Saturday for an AFC wild-card matchup on NBC.
Sportsbooks have settled on the Browns as two-point road favorites, making it the tightest spread of the wild-card weekend. With a decent chance of a close game and compelling storylines surrounding both quarterbacks, this wild-card game earned a SmartRating of 84 – the third highest of the weekend.
Saturday’s showdown is a rematch of 36-22 Browns victory in Week 16, but Stroud missed that game with a concussion, leaving Davis Mills and Case Keenum to split quarterback duties for the Texans.
Cleveland’s Key: Throw on Early Downs
Flacco’s story has been an incredible one – coming out of retirement midseason, not just to be a game manager but to be one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league down the stretch.
Since Flacco took over as the starter in Week 13, the Browns rank second in the NFL in yards per designed pass play at 7.5 and eighth in average depth of target at 8.9 yards.
Adding a potent and deep-shot passing game has saved the Browns’ season, which began with title aspirations but has been riddled with injuries.
On top of losing Watson, Cleveland has spent almost the entire year without four-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.
The Browns started five different quarterbacks in the regular season, and their 11-win record is a credit to their rugged defense and head coach Kevin Stefanski.
But Flacco’s ability to stretch defenses (most notably to Amari Cooper and David Njoku) has been the difference-maker for Cleveland late in the season. The issue is that Flacco also tends to throw it to the other team, too.
Flacco has thrown eight interceptions this season and has thrown at least one in each of his five starts. He has also had three dropped interceptions for a total of 11 pickable passes.
Of Flacco’s 194 adjusted attempts, 5.67% have been pickable – the second-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts this season.
The Browns grew accustomed to playing through turnovers, however.
Cleveland has committed one or zero turnovers in a game an NFL-low four times, but the Browns have managed an 11-win season despite a minus-9 turnover differential.
Highest Win Pct When Committing 2+ Turnovers
- T-1. Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
- T-1. Houston Texans (2-1)
- 3. Miami Dolphins (5-3)
- 4. Cleveland Browns (8-5)
- T-5. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4)
- T-5. Philadelphia Eagles (5-4)
Flacco has plenty of playoff experience – including a Super Bowl MVP trophy to show for it – but he hasn’t started a postseason game since 2014. As valuable as he has been for the Browns, playing a high-risk game in the playoffs could easily backfire.
The key for Cleveland could be avoiding third-and-long situations.
Houston’s defense is allowing a league-low 3.4 yards per designed rushing play on first down. Their 1.8 rushing yards allowed before contact rank second.
Pct of Opponent First Down Rushes Gaining 4+ Yds
- 1. New England Patriots (37.0)
- 2. Houston Texans (39.3)
- 3. Cleveland Browns (40.4)
- 4. San Francisco 49ers (40.9)
- 5. Atlanta Falcons (41.3)
The Texans, however, play with at least one extra defender in the box on 56.0% of first-down plays, well above the league average.
Flacco has a 100.5 passer rating on first down this season, and a heavy box could lead to openings in the secondary on early downs.
If Flacco can take easy completions to set up manageable third down situations, the Browns could get just their second playoff victory since 1995.
Houston’s Key: Trust in Stroud
On the other sideline, Stroud faces the biggest challenge in his young career. Playing in his first playoff game, he’ll face one of the most formidable defenses in the league.
The Browns rank 13th in the league in points allowed per game (21.3), but that includes six return touchdowns. In almost every important metric, Cleveland’s defense ranks at or near the top of the league.
In fact, the Browns are ranked No. 1 in defensive EVE, which measures team efficiency on each play compared to the expected result.
It will be difficult for Stroud and the Texans to find a weakness to exploit on Saturday.
It has been nearly impossible to drive methodically on the Browns defense. Cleveland has been on the field for drives of 10 plays or more just 12 times – the fewest in the league.
However, Cleveland also excels at preventing quick strikes on deep passes.
Opponent Passer Rating on Attempts 21+ Air Yards
- 1. Cleveland Browns (27.9)
- 2. Baltimore Ravens (34.6)
- 3. New York Jets (43.0)
- 4. Dallas Cowboys (57.8)
- 5. Las Vegas Raiders (60.4)
While the matchup will be very difficult, Stroud has been excellent when throwing the deep ball.
Stroud has a passer rating of 141.4 on throws of 21 yards or more downfield, second only to Brock Purdy’s 142.0 among qualified quarterbacks.
In an incredible strength-on-strength matchup, Stroud’s ability to throw the deep ball will be tested by a Cleveland secondary that has allowed the lowest burn percentage (39.4%) and the sixth-lowest open percentage (75.4%) in the NFL. It would certainly help the cause if star pass-rusher Myles Garrett can put pressure on the young QB.
But Stroud has answered every challenge of his rookie campaign so far, and now is not the time to handcuff the budding star with an overly conservative game plan, especially after Browns standout cornerback Denzel Ward suffered a knee injury in Thursday’s practice.
Among Stroud’s most impressive feats as a rookie have been his discipline and decision making, leading to just five interceptions in 499 attempts.
- 1. Houston Texans (14)
- T-2. Cincinnati Bengals (16)
- T-2. Dallas Cowboys (16)
- T-2. Pittsburgh Steelers (16)
- 5. Seattle Seahawks (17)
After starting the season with very little expected of them, the Texans have overachieved by trusting in their rookie QB and letting him deliver the ball to a collection of dangerous receivers.
Nico Collins is having a breakout season and ranks third among qualified receivers with an average of 3.8 burn yards per route. Teammate and standout rookie Tank Dell is fifth on that list at 3.6 burn yards per route.
It may seem odd to let a rookie quarterback sling the rock against the league’s best pass defense, but it’s too late in the season to discover a new identity, and Stroud has passed every test so far.
NFL games are decided in countless ways, but this wild-card round game may be as simple as its odd-couple pair of starting quarterbacks – the gray-bearded veteran looking to make one last run versus the young phenom playing beyond his years.
The Browns probably have the deeper and more talented roster, but Stroud may have more surprises in store before his rookie season is over.