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The Houston Texans and The NFL Power Rankings: Wildcard Weekend

Where are the Texans ranked after winning the AFC South?

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

They were doubted. They were ignored. Penciled under the “still rebuilding” tab long before the season had ever begun, the Houston Texans had low expectations placed on them by virtually every pundit willing to mention them, even after the 2023 NFL Draft. Playoffs were absolutely out of the question, and winning the AFC South would have been considered an even more comical suggestion. The Houston Texans winning the division? With a team full of rookies, second-year projects, and also-rans? This division belongs to the Jaguars, and it would be ridiculous to think otherwise!

Now, just a few days after Houston locked up the AFC South division following Jacksonville’s embarrassing loss to the Tennessee Titans, we have the chance to look back and admire how truly miraculous this feat is. I started this year’s power rankings in Week 1 with this blurb:

I’ll be your guide through the rankings jungle. As Houston Texans fans, our skins have toughened up to the dense criticisms and scathing remarks sent towards NRG Stadium the past couple of years. See, we’ve gotten used to 30th, 31st, and 32nd place. We’ve heard all of the harsh words fans across the globe hold strictly for Houstonian ears. We’ve adjusted to scrolling to the very bottom of the webpage to see the deflating blurb every football writer has served up for us. We eat trash, we are molded by trash, and now, in 2023, we are ready to climb back up the heap.

Already - before a regular season snap has even been taken - there are already some sports writers ranking Houston above the 30s! We have a few 28s and even a 27 on deck waiting for you today, a hot start to the power rankings season and a sign to the Texans that this offseason makeover has at least a few pundits hyped for the season.

Now I’ve seen surprise glow ups materialize during the regular season before, but this is ridiculous. I was excited they weren’t in the 30s! They started the regular season in between the 31 spot and 27 spot on most publication’s power rankings, and finished it in the playoffs! Impossible? Think again!

Week after week, the Houston Texans inched their way closer to the playoffs. Last second victories got them ever closer, yet a contested race in the AFC Wildcard kept secure placement out of reach. Starting with the now yearly big Jacksonville victory, Houston piled up crucial - and I mean crucial - victories against middling opponents, such as the PIttsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints. These were big victories which would become even bigger as the wildcard race rounded into shape, but neither could top the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.

This was the C.J. Stroud coming out party; This was the biggest Houston Texans victory since 2019; This was the game Houston announced themselves to the greater public beyond those acolytes in Battle Red. It featured banner games from tight end Dalton Schultz (10 rec., 130 yds., one TD), wide receiver Noah Brown (6 rec., 153 yds., one TD) and rookie wide receiver Tank Dell (6 rec., 114 yds., two TDs), revealing just how potent this offense could be under an elite passer such as C.J. Stroud. Stroud had a MVP-caliber performance in this game, throwing for 470 yards and five touchdowns…as a rookie quarterback. Look at the full stat line:

When was the last time you saw a stat line like this? Who was the last quarterback you saw throw 5 touchdowns and nearly surpass 500 yards in a single game? Patrick Mahomes? Tom Brady? Lamar Jackson? I mean, once you start making comparisons, the reality of what C.J. Stroud can do starts to become clear. I’ll do you one better: Was the last quarterback you saw accomplish this feat a rookie?

That win put Houston at 4-4 and helped all of us quickly forget the disappointing Panthers game; But, you know what’s even better than a last second victory to go 4-4? How about a game-winning field goal against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals the very next week? How about Houston’s rushing attack, which has been dead for years at this point, stirring back to life to save the day?

Absolutely unbelievable. I would have thought this all was a cruel joke not even a year ago. And it just kept getting better as the season went on! With each passing week, the Texans proved their mettle against increasingly difficult competition, proving over and over the moment was not big enough for them.

Then, great turbulence struck after the disastrous Jets game: star quarterback C.J. Stroud was ruled out for the next two games due to a concussion. A 1-1 record and serviceable effort by backup Case Keenum later, Houston was facing a do-or-die scenario with two games left in the season. They must win out, beating division rivals Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts to realize their playoff dreams. Could Stroud do it? Could he strike fear into the hearts of Houston’s division rivals, knock Indy out of the playoffs, and finish this historic season with a historic bang? Well, I think you know the rest:

After that win, the Houston Texans had officially locked up a playoff spot. Not 24 hours later, the Jacksonville Jaguars blew their regular season finale against the Tennessee Titans, missed the playoffs, and officially made the Houston Texans AFC South Champions. Division champions, a year after winning just three games! Unreal, incomparable, historic…use any word that’s synonymous with “amazing” you want to describe it, but justly describing the thrill ride that was this season will elude us for much, much longer. It is a truly indescribable season, with an indescribable finale, which yielded an indescribable division championship. In other words, this may have been the best regular season in Houston Texans history.

Here’s where the Houston Texans are ranked entering Super Wildcard Weekend of the 2023 NFL Season:

NFL.COM:

9. Houston Texans (10-7) (Last Week: 11)

One year ago, Lovie Smith was leading a late comeback that cost the Texans the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. On Saturday, the “consolation prize” they received, second overall pick C.J. Stroud, put on a terrific show in a win-or-else victory at Indianapolis. Then, the Jaguars coughed up the AFC South, and the Texans will host a playoff game for the first time in four years. This rebuild happened faster than almost anyone could have predicted, and it’s turned DeMeco Ryans — already a borderline legend in Houston — into a rookie coaching star. Between that and breathtaking debut seasons from Stroud, Will Anderson Jr. and (before he was hurt) Tank Dell, this has unquestionably been one of the most unexpectedly productive calendar years in franchise history. This doesn’t strike me as a team willing to go into Super Wild Card Weekend carefree. The Browns stomped the Stroud-less Texans in Houston not too long ago, and you know Ryans is going to remind the team about that a few dozen times this week.

- Eric Edholm

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED:

12. Houston Texans (10–7) (Last Week: 14)

Last week: win at Indianapolis, 23–19

Next week: vs. Cleveland

There is nothing like watching the pure joy of the Texans celebrating the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2019. This team completely remade itself, and has its quarterback of the future and present. Now, Houston is a year away from being truly dangerous. Although we said that about the Jaguars last year, the Texans feel like they have a bit more staying power.

- Conor Orr

BLEACHER REPORT:

11. Houston Texans (10-7; AFC No. 4 Seed)

Last Week: 12

Week 18 Result: Won at Indianapolis 23-19

It’s possible Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud won’t win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But if he doesn’t, it will be because Puka Nacua of the Rams broke a record that was over 60 years old and not because of anything the second pick hasn’t accomplished this season.

After the Texans downed the Colts and Jacksonville lost to Tennessee, Houston won the AFC South. And edge-rusher Will Anderson Jr. said there’s zero chance that happens without Stroud under center.

“Without [Stroud], we don’t accomplish half of the things that we have,” he told ESPN. “Man, [Stroud] has been phenomenal for us. Everybody in this building appreciates having him and is blessed to have him here. We just got to give all credit to 7. His personality affects everybody in this locker room. His attitude and energy bleed through the whole locker room. It makes everybody want to step up and keep playing better.”

Are the Texans a threat to knock off the likes of the Baltimore Ravens or Buffalo Bills in the AFC? Probably not. They will have their hands full with the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Round.

However, there isn’t a team in the entire NFL that has exceeded expectations more than the Texans this year. And they appear to have hit the jackpot with last year’s second (and third, because Anderson is no slouch) overall pick.

- Gary Davenport, Maurice Moton, Brent Sobleski

Average Rankings: 10.7 (Last Week Average:12)

See, I got used to ending these power rankings with propositional questions in order to foment wonder and anticipation for the upcoming game. Well, since the Texans kept winning and injecting more excitement into the regular season, I had to up the ante week after week to match, “Can Houston keep surprising the power rangers?” “Can Houston net another win against a conference opponent?” Can the Texans keep pace in the wildcard race?’ “Can C.J. Stroud keep playing like an MVP?” After each of these big, exaggerated questions, the Texans would somehow answer them, forcing me to go even further for the next power rankings. This happened over and over again this season, and now for Super Wildcard Weekend, I think I have a fitting request:

Can the Texans exact revenge on the Cleveland Browns for their regular season blowout? Can Houston end the Joe Flacco renaissance? Can C.J. place himself back at the center of the MVP conversation with the first playoff victory of his career? Will this historic season continue into the divisional round? Let us know what you think in the comments below! Until then…we shall await Saturday’s 3:30 PM CST kickoff, in fervent anticipation…

LET’S GO TEXANS!!!!

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images