The 2023 Houston Texans have truly not been the same team since Week 14. That is when they traveled to New Jersey and were expected to take care of business against an inferior Jets team.
Instead, the Texans failed to score a touchdown in the driving rain and lost their rookie star quarterback, as C.J. Stroud suffered a concussion late in a 20-6 defeat. They needed overtime to take down a mediocre Titans team a week later after overcoming a 13-point deficit.
In Week 16, the hopes for making the playoffs for the first time since 2019 took another hit, as Houston was embarrassed in a 36-22 loss to the Browns. The game was not anywhere as close as the final score would indicate, considering Cleveland marched out to a 36-7 lead before the Texans added on two garbage-time touchdowns.
The Texans have clearly missed Stroud over the past two games. He had entered the matchup against the Jets leading the NFL in passing yardage, and in mid-November, some creative and hopeful NFL analysts were wondering if he could garner some NFL MVP votes.
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Stroud may have given Houston a better chance to compete in the loss to Cleveland, although facing the NFL’s best pass defense might have made the task daunting for him, too. The Texans’ defense, though, was totally dominated by a resurgent Joe Flacco and his top wide receiver.
Flacco passed for 368 yards with three touchdown passes and was not sacked. One more important humiliating note for the Texans was Amari Cooper’s performance, as he set a Browns franchise receiving record with 265 yards on 11 receptions while catching two of Flacco’s scoring passes.
Injuries on the defensive side certainly did not help. Top rookie DE Will Anderson (ankle) missed his second straight game, and FS Jimmie Ward (quadriceps), CB Steven Nelson (foot), and DE Jonathan Greenard (ankle) all suffered injuries early in the loss, with Nelson being the only one of the three who was able to return.
Although head coach DeMeco Ryans refused to use injuries as an excuse in his postgame presser, the Texans still can make the playoffs, and the team is already far ahead of where it was in the past three seasons when it won a total of 11 games. Houston still sits in a virtual tie for the AFC South lead with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, as all three teams have 8-7 records.
Early optimistic reports have indicated Stroud has a good chance to return for a Week 17 matchup with Tennessee. If the Texans win their final two games, they still have a shot to win the AFC South and would certainly increase their chances to at least notch an AFC Wild Card berth.
Despite the recent struggles, being in a position to make the playoffs late in the season is a new outlook for the Texans and their fans. Plus, appearing in the postseason can certify a very bright future for the franchise.
Before Stroud, Houston’s two QBs that the organization built around never carried the team to the heights they were projected to. David Carr was a bust, and Deshaun Watson’s run with the Texans ended in controversy.
While he may not get any MVP votes, Stroud has already proved that he is one of the most valuable QBs on a team in terms of his team looking much less competitive without him. Ryans won’t win Coach of the Year, but he has already done his part to turn the team into a playoff contender.
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Quarterback-head coach duos can be the axis of enduring success, and the Texans apparently have found their pairing that can take the team further than ever before in the years ahead. Houston has never won anything more than a Wild Card game in the postseason, yet pulling off that feat again could be just the beginning of what may ultimately prove to be the start of the most successful era in Texans history.
Narratives and outlooks can change in the NFL every week, and if the Texans win their final two games and qualify for the AFC playoffs, they will embark on a path to becoming an eventual contender. As the team continues to build around Stroud, Anderson, and other young players with much promise, the Texans might eventually emerge as one of the better teams in the AFC.
At wide receiver, Nico Collins and Tank Dell, whose outstanding rookie campaign ended because of season-ending leg surgery, and proven TE Dalton Schultz form the core of a potent passing game. On defense, Greenard and CB Derek Stingley Jr. should be key defensive performers along with Anderson for years to come.
A shaky three-week stretch should not dim the outlook for a team that was listed as the third-youngest in the NFL heading into the 2023 season, according to Philly Voice. It should not be surprising that a group led by a rookie QB and head coach would stumble at some point during their first season together,
In the preseason, Houston’s Over/Under win total was 6.5 on FanDuel Sportsbook, so expectations have already been exceeded this season. With two more wins, the Texans will officially be able to mark this season as one in which they made a significant move in the right direction.
Weeks 14 and 16 were dark ones for the 2023 Houston Texans. Yet those games won’t be remembered much once the postseason begins if the Texans are on the field. Such losses may be regarded as minor missteps years later if this season indeed marks the beginning of a new age in franchise history.