Stroud has 213 yards and TD as Texans improve playoff hopes with 26-3 win over Titans

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) looks to throw a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/AP Photo)
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By KRISTIE RIEKEN | AP Sports Writer

HOUSTON (AP) — When the Houston Texans selected C.J. Stroud with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, the consensus was that he’d turn this team around eventually.

Stroud had other plans, and the rookie quarterback’s stellar play has the Texans a win away from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2019 after a 26-3 victory over Tennessee on Sunday.

“The time is now,” he said. “It’s not next year. It’s not the year after that. It’s right now. We have the opportunity to control our own destiny so I’m excited to do that.”

Houston (9-7), Indianapolis and Jacksonville all won Sunday to leave the three teams with identical records in the AFC South and keep the Texans in contention for both the division title and a playoff spot.

Stroud threw for 213 yards and a touchdown in his return from a concussion Sunday and a victory next week at Indianapolis will secure a playoff berth a year after Houston won just three games.

“He raises everyone’s level of confidence because everyone knows the type of player that he is,” coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He’s a big-time playmaker and he continues to show it week after week. We’re all excited to have C.J. back because he’s a really great player.”

Stroud hadn’t played since hitting the back of his head hard on the turf in a loss to the Jets on Dec. 10. He picked up right where he left off before the injury, moving the offense effectively and throwing his 21st touchdown pass of the season in the second quarter.

“It was a blessing this week to get back,” he said. “I felt like I got back to my normal self pretty fast.”

Houston Texans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) runs to the end zone for a touchdown after recovering a Tennessee Titans fumble during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

The Texans had a 17-point lead at halftime with some help from a touchdown on defense after Sheldon Rankins returned a fumble by rookie quarterback Will Levis for a score in the second quarter.

Levis injured his foot on the play and Ryan Tannehill took over. He threw for 168 yards but couldn’t get the Titans in the end zone as Tennessee (5-11) fell to Houston for the second time in three weeks.

“We’ve just got to do better of doing our job all around,” Tannehill said. “If it’s blocking, then blocking. If it’s catching, catching. If it’s throwing, throwing. Whatever the case may be, we just got to do a better job of doing our job.”

Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said he doesn’t think the injury to Levis is “too serious” but that he’d know more Monday.

The Texans pushed the lead to 23-3 on a field goal in the third quarter. The Titans had a chance to cut the lead after that, but they came up empty at the end of a 17-play drive when Tannehill’s pass on fourth-and-3 from the 3 was incomplete.

Houston made it 26-3 on a 51-yard field goal with about 5½ minutes to go.

The Titans had Houston stopped at its 11-yard line late in the first quarter, but Caleb Murphy was flagged for running into the kicker to give the Texans a first down.

Houston capped a 13-play, 89-yard drive with a 12-yard reception by Brevin Jordan to make it 10-0 with about 10 minutes left in the second.

Houston Texans tight end Brevin Jordan (9) runs into the end zone for a touchdown past Tennessee Titans linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (2) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/AP Photo)

On the next play, Levis lost the ball on a strip-sack by Jerry Hughes. Then Rankins, a 287-pound defensive tackle s cooped it up and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 17-0.

It was the first NFL touchdown for Rankins, who returned a fumble for a score as a senior at Louisville in 2015.

“As a defensive lineman … you prepare for them, but you just never really think they’re going to be there,” he said.

Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 38-yard field goal made it 20-0 with about four minutes left in the first half.

Tennessee got its only points on a 53-yard field goal by Nick Folk as time expired in the second quarter.

Houston defensive end Will Anderson, the third overall pick in the draft, h ad sacks on consecutive plays near the end of the second quarter in his return after missing two games with an ankle injury.

“He’s an impact player, and you see it instantly,” Ryans said. “We missed him. You see the production, you see the type of plays he can make for us.”

The Texans finished with six sacks after getting seven in the first meeting with the Titans.

“We’ve got to do a better job of protecting whoever is back there throwing the football,” Vrabel said.

Houston Texans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) celebrates a touchdown after a fumble recovery during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

Former Texans star DeAndre Hopkins had seven receptions for 72 yards for the Titans.

Derrick Henry had 12 carries for 42 yards after being limited to 9 yards on 16 carries by the Texans two weeks ago.

INJURIES

Titans OL Daniel Brunskill injured his ankle in the first half. … WR Colton Dowell left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury. … Houston LT Laremy Tunsil injured his groin in the second quarter. … WR Noah Brown injured a hip in the second quarter. … WR Robert Woods left in the fourth quarter with a hip injury.

UP NEXT

Titans: Wrap up their season next weekend with a visit from the Jaguars.

Texans: Visit Indianapolis next weekend.


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