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The struggling Jets are up next to try to slow Stroud and the Texans

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — The Houston Texans are surging toward the top of the AFC South, led by a rookie quarterback who has made things look pretty easy so far.

C.J. Stroud knows the hard part is ahead of them.

“Really, these are the most meaningful games of the year after Thanksgiving and going into December and January,” Stroud said. “We’ve gotten off to a good start and we’ve just got to keep that rolling.”

The Texans (7-5) have won four of their past five and are tied with Indianapolis for second in the AFC South, one game behind Jacksonville — which could be without injured quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Sunday at Cleveland.

Houston is focused solely on the task at hand: this week's road game against the struggling New York Jets (4-8), who are starting Zach Wilson at quarterback on Sunday.

“Proud of what they’ve done,” coach DeMeco Ryans said of his Texans. "They know we’re not where we can be. We know we can still play much better ball than we’ve shown over the past several weeks, and everybody is hungry to improve. And that’s what I love most about our team is the hunger to continue to get better.”

So far, Stroud has been mighty impressive, though.

The No. 2 overall pick in the draft last April is leading the NFL with 3,540 yards passing — the third most by a player in his first 12 games.

“He's a very unique young quarterback,” Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “He's a guy I really wish we would've played Weeks 1 to 4 when he was still trying to figure out this game.”

Stroud also has 20 touchdown passes with just five interceptions and hasn’t thrown an interception in his past two games.

“For me, it’s not just focused on me,” Stroud insisted. “I take full responsibility for being the leader, but the first thing I remember coming into the building, I was talking to a couple of vets, and they were like, 'You’re not in this on your own. We’re right there with you, holding ourselves to the same standard you do. We’re right there.’”

Those conversations with defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Jonathan Greenard have helped keep Stroud even-keeled as the Texans make their run.

“That’s something that takes a lot of pressure off of my back,” Stroud said. “And even though I put that pressure right back on, like me being my hardest critic, it also helps me relax, understand I can go be aggressive.”

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL

The Jets have been able to defend the pass well this season, and Stroud is their latest tough task.

New York hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer in 30 straight games, a stretch that includes having faced the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert and Josh Allen (twice) this season.

“He's a phenomenal quarterback,” defensive tackle Quinnen Williams said. “A young guy that's doing tremendous things, a lot of stuff well. A young guy that's making big-time throws down the field.”

LENDING A HAND

The Jets might need to mix things up a little on defense because Ryans has some first-hand experience with the type of schemes New York coach Robert Saleh likes to run with Ulbrich.

Saleh was an assistant in Houston for most of the time Ryans played for the Texans and was one of the people who encouraged him to get into coaching.

“I learned how to coach from being under Saleh,” Ryans said. “He taught me a lot when it comes to scheme, when it came to just handling players, game-planning. So, I learned a lot from Saleh and owe a lot to him and that’s probably the reason why I’m standing here before you because of him just taking me under his wing and teaching me the ropes.”

ZACH'S BACK

After being benched for two games in favor of Tim Boyle, Wilson finds himself leading the Jets' huddle again and looking to help end New York's five-game losing streak.

That didn't come without some controversy, though, with The Athletic reporting earlier in the week Wilson was reluctant about potentially starting again this season — citing potential injury concerns. Also, the 24-year-old quarterback might not be back next season after struggling through his first three NFL years.

“Everybody knows that I am going to do everything I can for the guys in the locker room,” Wilson said, “no matter the situation.”

STING AND SAUCE

Houston cornerback Derek Stingley was taken third in the 2022 draft, a spot ahead of fellow cornerback Sauce Gardner by the Jets.

Some had criticized the Texans’ decision to draft Stingley after Gardner was selected AP Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and Stingley had just one interception in nine games before missing the last eight with a hamstring injury.

He had another setback this season when another hamstring injury cost him six games. But Stingley has quieted the doubters since his return. He has four interceptions in his past three games, capped by a two-INT performance in last week’s win over Denver that earned him AFC defensive player of the week.

“Really encouraged and pleased with Stingley and the work he’s put in," Ryans said. "Now he’s getting the attention, he’s making some plays, but he’s always had that in him. So, I’m just happy to see him make those plays and for other people to see that he is a top corner in this league.”

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AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed.

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

Dennis Waszak Jr., The Associated Press