Any story of a great, unexpected rise starts with a humble beginning. In that sense, perhaps C.J. Stroud could thank the Baltimore Ravens.
When Stroud came to Baltimore in Week 1, he was humbled. Though he threw for 242 yards, he was sacked five times by a Ravens defense that posed a nearly unfair challenge for a No. 2 draft pick making his career debut.
Even so, he manufactured enough moments that made the Ravens defense feel, for all their success against the rookie, that they had been lucky to get him so early.
“That guy,” linebacker Patrick Queen said of Stroud, “he’s going to be a great quarterback coming up.”
Even Queen might not have predicted a rise this sudden. On Saturday, the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year will lead Houston into Baltimore, hoping this season’s hero’s journey continues to roll on. After shredding the NFL’s top pass defense in a 45-14 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns, Stroud became the youngest quarterback to win an NFL playoff game, surpassing a mark once set by his idol Michael Vick.
In one sense, the Texans granted the Ravens freedom from one kind of trauma: The prospect of former franchise quarterback Joe Flacco making a playoff visit to Baltimore while playing for an AFC North rival was tough to swallow.
But if Flacco threatened from the past, Stroud’s threat comes from the league’s future. He is ascendant — before missing games due to injury, he was a serious MVP contender in a race that now appears to be won by Lamar Jackson.
Jackson may be atop the NFL, but Stroud is already knocking. He showed in his playoff debut that he’s not afraid of the moment.
“I feel like that’s just how I am as a person,” Stroud said after the wild card win. “I’ve been this way since I’ve been a child. My family is back there. They know. I’ve always been the youngest in my family. I’ve always been the one who kind of gets picked on or whatever, but that made me tough.”
This week is bound to present comparisons, fair or not, between Jackson and Stroud. But they are stylistically very different. One thing that should concern Baltimore in the film room this week is how good Stroud is at downfield passing — the area where Jackson has been dinged throughout his career.
Houston hasn’t held back at all, using Stroud’s big arm to get the ball downfield. NextGen Stats shows Stroud is one of the league’s best passers at attempts of 20 yards or more, thanks in large part to fantastic chemistry with Nico Collins (1,297 yards). He’s also been able to take care of the ball, throwing just five picks against 23 touchdowns in the regular season. He can’t take off like Jackson from the pocket, but he’s found ways to extend plays and give receivers time to get downfield.
Stroud’s poise in the biggest games has shined brightly. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his last six games, and he helped Houston pull through in a must-win game in Week 18 even before his playoff success.
“C.J. is the reason why we’re in this position,” coach DeMeco Ryans said on Saturday. “He’s special. Special young man, special player, continues to shine no matter how big the moment is. Our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry that weight, and he shows up week after week.”
As good as Jackson has been for Baltimore, the postseason has not been so breezy. He’s 1-3 in the playoffs, throwing more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (3). Even as he’s cruised in the final weeks of the regular season to a presumed second MVP award with wins over Super Bowl contenders, many are still waiting to see that same prime-time level in the playoffs.
While the quarterback vs. quarterback always is a bit of a distorted narrative — after all, they play against defenses, not each other — Stroud is a natural foil. Things have seemingly come so easy to him since that Week 1 grounding against Baltimore, including winning.
Jackson was early to speak about his Super Bowl dreams and was even making people think it was possible as soon as Year 2, but this playoff run is expected to show his growth from those early stumbles. He’s further along down the path: He’s been through the bumps of youth and ready to reap the rewards after six years of experience.
“Guys were fighting, and we were young at the same time,” Jackson said last week, reflecting on the Ravens’ 2019 disappointment. “We were just starting to get into that situation of [a] playoff atmosphere, but I believe we’re going to be better this year, this time around.”
Even for mature teams who sense it’s their title to get, it can be difficult to contend with the cavalier, nothing-to-lose attitude of youth. Little was expected of Houston, its first-year coach and its first-year quarterback — and now they’re playing with house money against the AFC favorite.
It’s up to Jackson and the Ravens to deliver a clear message this week to Stroud and the Texans: It’s not your time yet.