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By KRISTIE RIEKEN | AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Rookie C.J. Stroud impressed fans across the country with his poise and calmness in leading the Houston Texans to a win over Cleveland in his playoff debut.
Though the performance was eye-opening to many, for those in Houston who know him best, it was just what they expected.
“He’s proven that big games don’t phase him,” offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said. “I wonder if his heart rate drops. He’s a special individual in that way.”
Stroud even impressed Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, who he’ll square off against Saturday in the divisional round, with his work against the Browns.
“From my experience, he played better than I did from my rookie playoff game, I would say that,” said Jackson, who threw for 194 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 23-17 loss to the Chargers in his playoff debut in 2019. “He was throwing the ball all over the field, making things happen. He did great.”
Stroud, the second overall pick, threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Cleveland’s top-ranked defense in the 45-14 rout. At just 22, he became the youngest quarterback to win a playoff game.
Stroud was 16 of 21 before sitting down for good with about nine minutes left and the game well in hand. His 157.2 passer rating was the best by a rookie with at least 20 passing attempts in a game in NFL history.
He was asked to explain how he’s stayed so calm under intense pressure in his first NFL season.
“I feel like that’s just how I am as a person,” he said. “I’ve been this way since I’ve been a child… I’ve always been the youngest in my family. I’ve always been the one who kind of gets picked on or whatever, but that made me tough.”
Now the polished rookie will face his toughest task to date when he leads Houston against top-seeded Baltimore on Saturday. It will be his second meeting with the Ravens after also visiting them in his NFL debut on Sept. 10.
Stroud threw for 242 yards in that game but failed to get the Texans in the end zone in the 25-9 loss.
Slowik said Stroud has improved and the connection he has with him has grown immensely since that game and he raved about the quarterback’s work ethic.
“He prepares like someone who has been in the league six, seven, eight years, and that speeds up all our conversations,” Slowik said. “I feel like I’m talking to another coach. So, our back and forths are usually pretty quick. He understands what I’m saying, I understand what he’s saying.”
Coach DeMeco Ryans liked many of the things Stroud did in his first game against the Ravens, but said he’s grown the most since then in his ability to rally the team around him.
“When we’ve needed it most, I feel like just throughout the entire season, and now in this moment, he’s the leader we need him to be,” Ryans said. “He’s the player that we need him to be. His demeanor on the field, off the field, is exactly what you want out of a starting quarterback.”
Stroud’s teammates say he got to work almost immediately after he joined the Texans to bond with them, especially the guys who’d be catching his passes to start the season. Last spring, he organized a trip to Los Angeles for Houston’s receivers and tight ends where they stayed and worked together to build rapport. The quarterback paid for everyone’s flights and put them up in a rented mansion tight end Brevin Jordan estimated to be worth about $20 million.
After strengthening those bonds throughout the season, no one was surprised that he played one of his best games last week when it mattered most.
“I knew he was ready,” Jordan said. “There was no doubt in my mind the dude was going to go out there and ball.”
Stroud knows that few outside of Houston are giving the Texans a chance on Saturday in a game where they’re 9 ½ point underdogs, according to FanDuel SportsBook.
But he isn’t worried about that. After all, they weren’t even expected to be in this position.
“It’s really just up to us to go out there and do our jobs, and we believe in ourselves and we trust in ourselves to win games and hopefully win this game,” he said. “We have complete confidence in ourselves, so we’re not really worried about what everyone else has to say.”