HOUSTON — Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio hip-checked his way into the tunnel Saturday night. Not like a man ready to fight, but more like a man demanding to celebrate. With bouncing hugs, slapped hands, fist pumps, and finally, a chesty elbow exchange with assistant head coach Danny Barrett.
All of this was an emotional presentation of an exhaled word.
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) January 14, 2024
The Texans had curb-stomped the Cleveland Browns 45-14 for their first playoff win since the 2019 season — which doesn’t sound like a long time in most corners of the NFL, but represents a waterless trek across the Sahara to those Texans who endured it. It was an expanse that strung together four different head coaches, seven starting quarterbacks, two general managers, a Deshaun Watson meltdown, a Jack Easterby ... well, whatever that thing was … and a three-year dry-heave from 2020 to 2022 that retched out an 11-38-1 record.
So perhaps it was appropriate that Caserio saved his final exchange for Barrett, who has been with the team since 2018, living in a nightmare that Caserio ultimately joined and committed to resolve prior to the 2021 season. While Barrett might have survived it longer, nobody was more deeply into the middle of the horror than Caserio, whose first order of business as GM was deconstructing a Watson problem that appeared to be 3 inches long on the surface, but in reality was 300 miles deep underneath.
All the while, those who remained in Houston dreamt of days like Saturday, when the Texans would not only defeat a Browns team that looked dangerous, but absolutely shredded Cleveland from seemingly every angle. A lethally efficient 274 yards and three touchdown passes from rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. A dynamic mix of running plays. A left tackle performance from Laremy Tunsil that essentially erased Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. An oxygen-depriving game from cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who followed Browns wideout Amari Cooper for most of the night. And the capper, four sacks and back-to-back pick-6 touchdowns from cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Christian Harris, which effectively broke the fairytale spell the veteran QB Joe Flacco was weaving around Cleveland’s season.
Taken as a whole, it showcased three parts of the Texans that make them dangerous to whoever they face in the AFC's divisional round. First, it’s a testament to Caserio’s performance during his three offseasons in Houston, which have lined the roster with young talent complementing a set of veterans who finally fit the culture he was searching for. Second, it continues to showcase the significant play-calling talents of head coach DeMeco Ryans and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who married masterful halves — first on offense for Slowik and then on defense for Ryans — which ultimately overwhelmed the Browns. And finally, a performance coming out of halftime leading 24-14 that showed the Texans were capable of closing a game when they had their window.
As Ryans said later, “The thing that was said in the locker room was, ‘We’re here.’ We talk about our moment, we talk about opportunity — the biggest thing is what do you do with it. It was all about just going out and just finishing. … When we needed it most, our defense had their best performance of the year — in the biggest game of the year. They stepped up, had an outstanding performance and they’re the reason why we won this game and why we were able to finish in the second half.”
For the opponents who might be paying attention, there’s suddenly a very real reason to worry about these Texans. Not only did they disassemble a Browns team that beat them in late December, they’ve been on a heater since early November, going 8-3 in their past 11 games and growing in confidence as they galvanize behind Stroud. So much so, there’s a bit of a historic and familiar feel to it.
Another franchise put together a run like this in 2012, behind a rookie quarterback who had sparked a franchise to a level of momentum that had been long forgotten. That team finished the season on a 7-1 run before winning a wild-card game and then losing on a last-second field goal in the divisional round. One year later? They’d win a Super Bowl.
While it’s not the perfect 1-to-1 comparison — with Seattle being a team loaded on defense and Houston being loaded on offense — the spirit of the two teams is very much the same. Wilson’s arrival, along with an infusion of other young talent, transformed the Seahawks into a juggernaut seemingly overnight. Following that 2012 season, it was clear that Seattle franchise was going to be a problem in the NFC. And that’s how people should be staring at the Texans right now — like a team that’s up for a wrestling match with anyone and everyone.
The offense? Stacked with young and impactful skill position players. The defense? Looking better when healthy, and also likely to see deep investment with the 21 draft picks the Texans have in the next three drafts. And about that set of draft picks? The Texans own the Browns’ first-round selection next season (as part of the Watson trade). By beating them Saturday, they just assured that the pick they got from Cleveland will be a better choice than their own first-rounder — which they traded to the Arizona Cardinals in a package to move up for foundational edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. That pick the Texans sent to the Cardinals? It will now be no better than 25th overall.
Wrapped around the performance of Stroud, who became the youngest rookie quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game, the future of this team is not only now, but likely to stretch upward for years. And like the Seahawks with a rookie Russell Wilson more than a decade ago, the Texans know it.
“C.J.’s the reason why we’re in this position,” Ryans said Saturday. “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. He shows up week after week. He continues to improve week after week. No moment is too big for him. When you have a young player who can shoulder the load of the team, and the way the team is behind him — the confidence that he gives the entire team — it’s so cool to watch.”
“He such a special player and has a special season, and we’re looking forward to keep moving on.”
So they have, right into the divisional round. Fist-pumping, hip-checking, elbowing and celebrating. Finally out of the desert — and ready for whatever is thrown at them.