National Football League
Can C.J. Stroud, Texans challenge the Jaguars for AFC South title?
National Football League

Can C.J. Stroud, Texans challenge the Jaguars for AFC South title?

Published Nov. 8, 2023 2:12 p.m. ET

The Texans' confidence is understandably sky-high coming off their thrilling victory over the Buccaneers. They overcame their worst defensive performance of the season, losing their kicker (backup running back Dare Ogunbowale stepped up in an emergency role) and a lackluster run game to register one of the most memorable victories in recent franchise history. 

"I think it's something that can get us rolling," rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud said after the 39-37 win. "Momentum is everything in this league, in the game of football. So we've got to ride this momentum and ride really hard in practice week.

"I don't think we can be stopped when we're on our A-game," he added. "It's a big-time win for us. November and December is when you want to be playing your best ball, so now we just want to upscale and trail blaze into the playoffs and hopefully get a chance to win a division and everything like that."

Now, how feasible is it for the Texans to actually make the AFC South race interesting down the stretch?


A game outside the last AFC wild-card spot, Houston (4-4) is two games behind red-hot Jacksonville (6-2) for the top spot in the division. 

From the Texans' standpoint, what's discouraging is that the Jaguars are a force right now. One of the elite teams in the AFC, Jacksonville is on a league-leading five-game winning streak and rested coming out of its bye week. But the Jaguars have a rough stretch ahead. In the next six weeks, the Jags have the 49ers (5-3), Titans (3-5), Texans (4-4), Bengals (5-3), Browns (5-3) and Ravens (7-2). That's two AFC South rivals and four teams currently in playoff spots.

If the Jags struggle in that stretch, there could be an opening for the Texans, who have a much easier schedule in the same span: at Cincinnati (5-3), vs. Arizona (1-8), vs. Jacksonville (6-2), vs. Denver (3-5), at Jets (4-4), at Tennessee (3-5). The average winning percentage of Houston's opponents over the next six weeks is .456, compared to Jacksonville's .587. While the Jaguars are set to face four playoff teams in the next month and half, the Texans are facing just two, one of them being the Jags — whom they blew out 37-17 in Week 3. 

Having Stroud should be the biggest reason for the Texans' optimism down the stretch. He has shown the ability to carry and lead Houston in a way that's rare for rookies. 

Given how Stroud elevates his teammates, one can't count out the Texans with him at quarterback. He proved that last week in a record-setting 470-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Bucs that featured a game-winning drive. The No. 2 overall pick has been a top-10 passer in most major categories, including passing yards (seventh), touchdowns (tied for seventh), interception rate (first), yards per attempt (third), passer rating (fourth) and EPA per dropback (fifth). 

"They said something about he did a veggie meter to check how much veggies are in your bloodstream, and they found all ice," Texans safety Jalen Pitre said of Stroud on Sunday. "He's like that for real. No vegetables, straight cold-blooded."

Is Texans rookie C.J. Stroud already a top-10 NFL QB?

The Texans' most glaring weakness, what could be an Achilles’ heel in what they hope is a playoff run, is their run game. They had just 53 net rushing yards in the win over Tampa, including seven at the half. Right when one thought the Texans could be turning a corner in that department — they had over 110 rushing yards in consecutive games leading up to this past Sunday — they took a step back, marking the fifth time in eight games they failed to reach 90 rushing yards. Entering Week 10, Houston ranks 27th in rushing (87.0 rushing yards per game).

Lead back Dameon Pierce didn't play in the Bucs game due to an ankle injury — his first missed game of the season — but his production has regressed drastically from his impressive 2022 rookie season. Among all running backs this year who've carried the ball at least 100 times, Pierce ranks last in yards per carry (3.0), success rate (22.9%) and rushing first downs (12), and ranks second-worst in EPA per carry (-0.29), according to Next Gen Stats. 

"The run game wasn't quite where we wanted it to be," coach DeMeco Ryans said of the Bucs game. "But if it's not there, we have a guy who can really throw it and make some plays. If that's a strength of ours and we have to play to that, that's what we'll do. The biggest thing is just about moving the football. And whatever it takes to move the football, that's what we'll do."

[Want great stories delivered right to your inbox? Create or log in to your FOX Sports account, follow leagues, teams and players to receive a personalized newsletter daily.]

The Texans are not a team without flaws, but they're one that has tasted success.

That gives them confidence about what is possible in 2023. 

"I feel like we're supposed to have more wins than we have now," defensive back Tavierre Thomas said Monday. "Just putting it all together. I feel like the sky's the limit for us. [If] we all play complementary football, play together, don't flinch, I feel like we can beat anybody."

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more