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The NFL has a CJ Stroud problem as the Houston Texans quarterback lights Super Bowl dream while hunting down the elite

CJ Stroud is not only producing one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NFL history, but ascending towards the league's elite quarterbacks as the face of a rejuvenated Houston Texans organisation, which finally has a reason to believe.

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud

He is too good. He shouldn't be this good. Not now, not here, not yet. CJ Stroud has ransacked the NFL's quarterback arm's race, torpedoing the best laid playoff plans of rivals, igniting an unlikely dream and spring-boarding a new era for the Houston Texans.

How would he handle Jim Schwartz and his No 1-ranked Cleveland Browns defense? How would the rookie swagger, funky arm angles, bold imagination and field diagnosis stand up in the face of postseason pressure and a marauding Myles Garrett? Was this where an ahead-of-schedule Texans project stumbled into a reality check?

Stroud was untouchable. He shredded Schwartz's single-high coverage, neutralised Garrett, picked on slot corner Greg Newsome II, manipulated defenders with his eyes, exchanged splash plays with his veteran counterpart and reimagined collapsing pockets into breezy platforms on which to dice and deliver.

Cleveland had stormed to a 36-22 win when the sides met in the absence of Stroud on Christmas Eve; on Saturday he was the landslide difference, breaking the NFL record for most first-half playoff passing yards by a rookie and throwing for three touchdowns to derail any wholesome Joe Flacco narratives while dressing up DeMeco Ryans' Texans as one of the league's most enthralling spectacles.

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Highlights from the Cleveland Browns against the Houston Texans on the Super Wild Card Weekend.

"C.J. is the reason why we're in this position," said Ryans. "He's a special young man and special player and continues to shine. No matter how big the moment is, our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry the weight. And he shows up week after week. No moment is too big for him. He has had a special season and we're looking forward to keep moving on."

The 'quarterbacks you would start a franchise with over CJ Stroud' list is beginning to feel stingy. Patrick Mahomes, yes; Josh Allen, yes; Joe Burrow, yes; Lamar Jackson, yes; Justin Herbert, probably.

Stroud became the youngest quarterback to win a playoff game in NFL history, overtaking his idol Michael Vick. In doing so, he has Houston in the Divisional Round of the postseason as everything for they which they could have wished in their No 2 overall pick franchise quarterback.

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He finished the regular season with a passer rating of 100.8 (fifth among quarterbacks that played at least 10 games), while throwing for 4,108 yards (eighth), at 8.2 yards per attempt for 23 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Stroud entered Sunday fourth in average intended air yards per pass; in a league where defenses have sought to blunt deep shots, he has shown no fear in pushing the ball downfield.

While others around the league float anxiously in play-calling purgatory after Draft misses and amid poorly-constructed rosters, the Texans - for all their short-comings as a franchise in recent years - have found their centre-piece. And how smug they should be about it. Projections of a Jacksonville Jaguars monopoly on the AFC South behind Trevor Lawrence have been muddied, a rocky introduction for No 1 pick Bryce Young in Carolina has come under the contributing weight of Stroud's instant impact, and unsubstantiated pre-Draft doubts over the former Ohio State Buckeye are looking foolish.

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Brevin Jordan left the Cleveland defence in his wake as he completed the sensational 76-yard touchdown for Houston.

It is for Stroud and the immediacy of his success upon transitioning to the NFL that has granted offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik the license to dig deep into his bag of tricks and unveil the expansiveness to his playbook, the results of which have thrust him into head coaching contention far earlier than might have been expected - even for a Shanahan disciple.

Among the plays that spoke to Slowik's trust in his young quarterback was a red zone shovel pass attempt to fullback Andrew Beck, during which he elected to leave Garrett unblocked off the edge in faith Stroud had the footwork and quick release to execute smoothly with a bowling ball threatening to flatten him. It didn't pay off, but Slowik has come to learn he can ask anything of Stroud.

He has the Shanahan-esque tendency to dress up concepts identically only in view of varying outcomes, and Stroud has the talent to both sell and impose them. On Nico Collins' 15-yard touchdown catch-and-dash Stroud faked an outside zone bootleg to drag the entire Browns defense left with the help of Brevin Jordan's pre-snap motion, before orbiting in a flash and finding his wide-open receiver. On Dalton Schultz's 37-yard touchdown pass later in the game they flipped the same picture, Stroud faking the handoff and rolling away from the fake outside zone run before taking advantage of the flood route concept that had again dragged Cleveland left and slinging a cross-body strike to his tight end.

Stroud left college as the most picturesque passer of his Draft class, with beautiful touch on downfield shots and unerring accuracy from multiple angles both on and off platform. Evaluations had raised question marks over his ability to create and improvise outside of the pocket in the same ways that Young could, at the same time overlooking Stroud's veteran prowess to slide and climb in a crowded backfield, which has served as an equally-demoralising thorn to defensive designs believing they have the field suitably covered, only to find out they haven't.

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The best plays from Texans rookie quarterback CJ Stroud, who seems destined to win this season's Rookie of the Year award.

"I understand the NFL is big on not handing the MVP to rookies but like you see what that dude just did to one of the best defenses in the NFL," Brevin Jordan said. "The dude is a beast. I don't understand why he's not in the conversation for MVP. I honestly think he should be the frontrunner."

His eyes work as though they have seen NFL defenses for years, his footwork is exquisitely-rehearsed and a mastered foundation to his arm talent, his off-script poise is unflappable, his out-of-structure precision is mature and anti-reckless; Stroud has strung together one of the most accomplished rookie quarterback campaigns in league history, and he isn't done yet. He is gliding through reads in condense-to-expand formulas that rest on the speed at which he can see plays materialise, he is torching teams out of play-action, he is bludgeoning pressure with the mechanics and poise to flick his wrist off the back foot. He makes every throw.

Stroud is the face of a reviving transformation to a direction-less organisation that dismissed head coaches Bill O'Brien, David Culley and Lovie Smith in the space of three seasons before dealing with Deshaun Watson, his trade request, year-long absence amid sexual harassment allegations and eventual trade to the Cleveland Browns. Houston were in a hole; between them Stroud and Ryans have transformed the narrative.

Hurtling towards Offensive Rookie of the Year, marching into the Divisional Round as a legitimate threat to the recognised Super Bowl contenders that potentially await, and paving the way for a pursuit of the league's best.

Never flustered, rarely rushed, always a delight. The AFC already had its hands full; now they have a Stroud to tame.

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