Stroud, Ryans have Texans on the upswing heading into meeting with Cardinals

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HOUSTON (AP) — The electric play of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the leadership of first-year coach DeMeco Ryans have made the Houston Texans relevant for the first time in years.

On Sunday, the Texans (5-4) host the Arizona Cardinals (2-8) and will try for their first three-game winning streak since 2018.

“We’re excited about what our guys have done here to create the energy and the buzz around the city,” Ryans said. “I think our fans here in Houston deserve it ... and we’re just excited to continue to go out another week and just go play good football. I think if we continue to play good football, the city will continue to be excited.”

The Texans (5-4) have returned to playoff contention after three miserable seasons during which they were among the worst teams in the league. It’s the first time they’ve won five games since going 10-6 in 2019.

Stroud, who was the second overall pick in the draft, became the only rookie quarterback in the past 40 years to lead game-winning drives in the final two minutes in two straight games when Houston beat Cincinnati last week. He orchestrated a six-play, 55-yard drive, capped by a 38-yard field goal that gave the Texans a 30-27 victory over the Bengals.

A week earlier, Stroud needed less than 46 seconds to put together a 75-yard drive that he finished with a 15-yard TD pass in a 39-37 win over Tampa Bay.

“He doesn’t look like a rookie out there, I know that,” Arizona coach Jonathan Gannon said. “His process is extremely fast, very accurate, and a quick release. ... He’s doing a really good job, that’s why they’re above .500, right in the playoff hunt. Playing good football right now. Really good football. He jumped off the tape.”

Stroud set a rookie record by throwing for 470 yards with five touchdowns against the Buccaneers before throwing for 356 yards last week to become the second rookie in NFL history with consecutive games with at least 350 yards passing. A 350-yard game Sunday would make him the first rookie to have three in a row.

“I just want more,” Stroud said. “I want to do better. I want to be as complete as I can. This game is a process, and I know every week I have to bring it. And I know I’m not being treated as a rookie anymore, so people are bringing their A-game because they want to knock me off.”

His work has impressed Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who helped the Cardinals snap a six-game skid with a 25-23 victory over Atlanta last week in his season debut after recovering from ACL surgery.

“If you love the game, if you really love the art and the detail of the position — he’s playing it the right way,” said Murray, the first overall pick in 2019. “He’s obviously leading those guys. They believe in him, and they trust him so I’m proud of him. I’m excited to see his career.”

FULL-POWER OFFENSE

The Cardinals’ primary playmakers are as healthy as they’ve been all season now that Murray has returned. Running back James Conner (knee) came off injured reserve last week and ran for 73 yards on 16 carries. Rookie Michael Wilson is also back after dealing with a shoulder injury, rejoining a solid group or receivers that includes Marquise Brown, Rondale Moore and tight end Trey McBride.

Murray figures to keep improving as he gets used to coordinator Drew Petzing’s offense. The quarterback played his first four seasons under coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was fired after going 4-13 last season.

“There are definitely some old habits that want to creep back in when you’re out there, but no, it’s good breaking those habits and trusting the process,” Murray said.

TOP-10 SHOWCASE

There will be three top-10 picks from April’s NFL draft on the field Sunday — Stroud, Houston defensive end Will Anderson and Arizona offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr.

Anderson was chosen right after Stroud at No. 3 and Johnson was taken sixth.

Johnson — who protected Stroud in college at Ohio State — has started every game this season at right tackle, settling in as a long-term piece of the Cardinals’ rebuild.

“He’s playing well,” Gannon said. “Started every game and playing a premier position. I think he continues to get better week to week, and that’s not just on game day. That’s looking at the whole scope of practice (with) fundamentals, his process and how he’s going about it, and how he’s studying.”

ON THE GROUND

While Stroud has had Houston’s passing game soaring all season, the team struggled to run the ball effectively until last week.

The Texans ran for a season-high 188 yards against the Bengals behind a career day by Devin Singletary. He had 30 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown in his second start with Dameon Pierce out with an ankle injury. It was the first time Houston has had a 150-yard rusher since 2019.

The Texans are aiming to build on that performance against Arizona.

“When it comes to the run game, you have to be physical up front, starting with the offensive line,” Ryans said. “You have to create displacement and the backs have to be physical, running the ball downhill. That’s what (Singletary) did last week.”

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AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL