(Photo credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)
With back-to-back last-second victories pushing the Houston Texans above-.500 in November for the first time since 2019, there's an unrecognizable element in the air around the franchise: playoff talk.
The emergence of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has the Texans squarely in the postseason conversation with eight games to play.
When the Texans (5-4) host the Arizona Cardinals (2-8), Houston's challenge includes avoiding looking beyond Sunday and down the road ahead. Up next is a critical fight with the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) on Nov. 26 on the Texans' home turf.
Stroud leads the NFL with 291.8 passing yards per game and is sixth with a 101.0 rating. He is the linchpin of an offense scoring 24.1 points per game -- 10th in the league -- and averaging 372.5 yards per game, good enough for sixth.
"The thing that impresses me the most is how he's won the locker room and the guys play for him," Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said of Stroud. "Guys truly believe in C.J. He exudes confidence, and our entire team is confident because of what C.J. has done."
The Texans will face a Cardinals' pass defense ranked 31st in opponent quarterback rating (101.0) and 29th with an opponent completion percentage of 69.1. The statistics point to Stroud rolling again, especially if his offensive line continues to sweep a pristine pocket clear of obstacles. Houston allowed one sack over 41 dropbacks in a 30-27 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week.
Of importance in that mission, left tackle Laremy Tunsil (knee) did not practice on Wednesday.
The opportunity is present for the Texans to further entrench themselves as playoff hopefuls. Their foremost weekly challenge is maintaining their elevated play.
"The conversation that comes about success and how you handle it is don't get the big head," Ryans said. "Stay humble. That's what it's all about."
The Cardinals have a surprising bounce in their step for an eight-loss team. That's because they welcomed back franchise quarterback Kyler Murray from a knee injury. He started for the first time since a torn ACL last December and, right on cue, snapped a six-game skid with a 25-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10.
As was to be expected given the time missed, Murray delivered an uneven performance while passing for 249 yards on 7.8 yards per attempt with an interception and a rushing touchdown. Murray scrambled for 33 yards, enough dynamism to lift an Arizona offense that had been in the doldrums without him and running back James Conner, who returned from a knee injury sustained in Week 5 and rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries.
The Cardinals were regimented taking Murray through his rehab. They don't plan to deviate from their cautious approach now that he is back in the fold, even after his promising debut.
"We'll take it day-by-day," Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon said. "It was good. That was kind of the next step in the process, getting him out there and playing in a game, and then the 48 hours after the game, his body. And then we'll get on the practice field and keep it moving forward."
Ryans spent several years prepping to play Murray as defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. But he was only active for one of the past four meetings between those two teams.
With Murray again under center, the odds have increased for Arizona to have additional success during the second half of the season. This was scripted to be a rebuilding campaign for the Cardinals, and plans for roster development haven't changed even with a boost in optimism.
"I said that can't go away once the season starts," Gannon said. "So, they have the resources that they need. The staff has done a really good job with that helping those guys out and I'm really pleased with where our guys are at as far as developing their game as the season has gone on."
--Field Level Media