HOUSTON (AP) — As the games get bigger, C.J. Stroud just keeps getting better.
The rookie became the youngest quarterback to win a playoff game after throwing for 274 yards and three touchdowns, and the Houston Texans returned two interceptions by Joe Flacco for scores in a 45-14 rout of the Cleveland Browns in a wild-card matchup Saturday.
“C.J. is the reason why we’re in this position,” coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He’s special, a special young man. Special player. Continues to shine no matter how big the moment is.
“Our whole team is leaning on him and he has the shoulders to carry that weight.”
Stroud, the second overall pick in the draft last April, is also the highest-drafted rookie QB to win in the postseason. He picked apart Cleveland’s vaunted defense, throwing touchdown passes of 15 yards to Nico Collins, 76 to Brevin Jordan and 37 to Dalton Schultz.
“It’s been a heck of a year and I thank God, I can just go another week with my teammates,” Stroud said. “This is like a dream come true.”
At 22 years and 102 days old, Stroud passed Michael Vick, who was 22 years, 192 days old in 2002 when his Falcons beat the Packers.
“I’m super blessed to be considered with a great name like Michael Vick, who was my favorite quarterback growing up,” he said. “And hopefully I can make it two (wins).”
Stroud threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns before halftime as the Texans built a 24-14 lead. The defense took over after that, with Steven Nelson and Christian Harris returning interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the third quarter to extend the lead to 38-14.
“It was really, really big to put up 14 points on top of what C.J. was already doing,” Nelson said. “That just put the icing on the cake for us.”
With the Texans up 45-14 with nine minutes to go, Stroud’s work was done, and he was replaced by Davis Mills.
It’s the Browns’ worst postseason loss since a 34-0 thumping by the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 29, 1968.
Houston is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2019, and Stroud’s stellar play and the leadership of Ryans, who’s in his first year, transformed the Texans (11-7) from NFL laughingstock to AFC South champions.
Flacco, who turns 39 on Tuesday, came off the couch to go 4-1 as a starter to end the regular season. He led the Browns (11-7) to just their third playoff appearance since their 1999 expansion rebirth, but second in four seasons under coach Kevin Stefanski.
“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” Stefanksi said. “That’s all of us. That’s players, coaches, offense, defense, special teams. Not good enough.”
Playing in his 17th postseason game but first in nine years, Flacco couldn’t continue his magical run under the bright lights of the playoffs.
“It’s definitely a shame the way it went down and hard to deal with at the moment,” Flacco said.
He finished with 307 yards and had a touchdown pass in the first half, but his mistakes under pressure in the third quarter were too much for the Browns to overcome on a day when Stroud easily outshined him in his playoff debut.
The previous highest-drafted rookie QB to win a postseason game was the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez, who was the fifth overall pick in 2009.
Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson was under center for the Texans during their last playoff run but played just six games for the Browns this season before having season-ending shoulder surgery. He was on the sideline Saturday for just the second time since his surgery, watching the coming out party for the man who replaced him as Houston’s franchise quarterback.
The sellout crowd was rowdy and ready for Houston’s return to the postseason after three awful seasons where the team combined for just 11 wins. They chanted “MVP! MVP!” throughout the game when Stroud dropped back to pass.
Collins had six receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, and Devin Singletary ran for 66 yards and a late score for Houston.
Kareem Hunt ran for a touchdown and had a TD reception in the first half, but had just 26 yards rushing.
The Browns took a 7-3 lead on Hunt’s 1-yard run with about two minutes left in the first quarter.
Collins’ 15-yard TD catch put the Texans back on top 10-7.
The Browns regained the lead on their next drive when Hunt grabbed a shovel pass from Flacco and ran 11 yards for a touchdown.
But the advantage would last only 10 seconds as Jordan grabbed a short pass and outran multiple defenders for a 76-yard touchdown to make it 17-14. It was Houston’s longest play this season and the longest in franchise playoff history.
“I was a running back my whole life,” Jordan said. “So I feel like that’s one of those things that I really carry with me as a tight end.”
Stroud’s 37-yard TD pass to Schultz pushed the lead to 24-14 with about a minute left in the second quarter.
Flacco was hit by Derek Barnett as he threw and his pass was picked off by Nelson and returned 82 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-14 with about six minutes left in the third quarter.
The Browns went for it on fourth-and-2 on their next drive and Flacco was picked off again. This time, Harris returned it 36 yards for the score.
The Texans are the first team to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a game since Seattle did it against Washington on Jan. 5, 2008.
Browns: LG Joel Bitonio injured an ankle in the second quarter.
Texans: WR Noah Brown hurt a shoulder in the first quarter. … LB Denzel Perryman injured his ribs in the third quarter.