(Houston) C. J. Stroud and the rest of the Houston Texans rookies started a group chat shortly after the draft to talk about their goals.

“We said we were going to be the foundation that was going to turn the tide. It’s become reality,” Stroud said.

And it happened much faster than expected for the Texans (10-7), who will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2019. They will host the Cleveland Browns (11-6) in the first playoff round on Saturday.

Stroud, the second overall pick in the last NFL draft, is the only rookie quarterback to make the playoffs this season. The 22-year-old will face the playoffs’ oldest quarterback, Joe Flacco, who will celebrate his 39th birthday just three days after the game.

Stroud will face the Browns for the first time. He missed the Texans’ 36-22 loss to them on Dec. 24 while recovering from a concussion. The Texans were also without rookie defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the third overall pick in the draft, and linebacker Blake Cashman.

The Browns know it will be a challenge containing Stroud, who has totaled 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns.

“He’s awesome,” Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said. I remember watching it earlier because we had some video to analyze to prepare for a matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. I know, it was his first game, and I think even in that game you saw plays and passes where you knew right away he was really talented. »

Stroud’s emergence transformed a team that had totaled just seven wins in the previous two seasons. The Texans’ futility included quarterback Deshaun Watson, who refused to play with the team after requesting a trade. He was then traded to the Browns.

Watson was the Texans’ starting quarterback in their last playoff appearance in 2019, but he played in just six games for the Browns this season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. . After the backup quarterbacks failed to produce success, the Cleveland squad signed Flacco while he was waiting at home.

Flacco went 4-1 as a starter to help the Browns make their third playoff appearance since returning to the NFL in 1999. This was, however, the second appearance in four seasons under Stefanski’s tutelage.

This will be Flacco’s 17th playoff game — he didn’t play his last with the Ravens in 2019 — and his 16th postseason start. His first playoff game was on January 4, 2009, when the Ravens beat the Dolphins 27-9 and Stroud was just 8 years old.

Flacco was asked about the importance of playoff experience.

“I’m sure there’s a certain level of importance to that, in terms of letting the game come to you,” he said. The most important thing in playoff games is to execute fundamental plays to the highest degree. And I don’t think it necessarily requires experience. You just need to keep a cool head and play with yourself. »

First-year Texans coach DeMeco Ryans, who turned 39 in July, hesitated when a reporter called Flacco old, before joking about it.

“It’s impressive to see that Joe is still playing at a high level,” insisted Ryans. There is no let-up in his arm strength, in his decision-making – everything is still elite, at a high level. So, it’s impressive to see a guy as young as him play, but he’s the reason this team is in the position it’s in right now. Because he has this experience, he has been in this situation before and I know his players believe in him. »