Jaguars thwart late Texans rally as Trevor Lawrence outduels C.J. Stroud in AFC South thriller

If this is the future of the AFC South, buckle up.

With the division lead at stake, the Jacksonville Jaguars won a 24-21 thriller over the Houston Texans Sunday in a game featuring two of football's most exciting young quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence threw for 364 yards while the Jaguars' defense thwarted a late rally effort at the hands of electric Texans rookie C.J. Stroud.

The Jaguars left the game with an 8-3 record which tied them at the time atop the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins.

Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars won a critical AFC South matchup with the Texans. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars won a critical AFC South matchup with the Texans. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jacksonville took a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, threatening to seize control of the game. But Houston countered two possessions later with a 55-yard touchdown drive to cut its deficit to 24-21.

The Texans forced a punt on the ensuing Jaguars possession, and Houston took over with 3:01 left and a chance to tie or win the game. But a pair of Jacksonville sacks stifled the drive, and Matt Ammendola's 58-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game bounced off the crossbar to secure the Jaguars' win.

Jacksonville escaped Houston with a two-game lead over the Texans and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. A Texans win would have tied Houston with Jacksonville atop the division and secured a season sweep of the Jaguars.

Lawrence and Stroud each thrived in the face of poor officiating and defenses that set the tone early in the game. A Jaguars field goal marked the only points of the first quarter that featured four drives ending in punts.

Jacksonville broke the early touchdown drought with a 68-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run from Lawrence to extend the Jaguars lead to 10-0. Houston countered with a 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a Stroud pass to Tank Dell to cut its deficit to 10-7 midway through the second quarter.

Doug Pederson gamble comes up empty

The Jaguars added another field goal then faced a big decision at the end of the half. A 57-yard pass from Lawrence to Christian Kirk set Jacksonville up with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line when Kirk stepped out of bounds near the goal line. But there was only one second remaining on the clock, leaving head coach Doug Pederson with a big decision.

As he's wont to do, Pederson rolled the dice. Instead of sending out his field goal unit, Pederson dialed up his offense with a chance to take a 20-7 lead into halftime. Houston's defense had other ideas and swarmed running back Travis Etienne short of the goal line on a pitch to the right.

Houston's defense then came up with another big play to start the third quarter. Derek Stingley Jr. intercepted Lawrence at midfield, setting up Houston with a chance to take the lead. The turnover was aided by one of several botched calls on the day as officials missed a blatant hold by safety Jalen Pitre of Lawrence's intended target Evan Engram.

The Texans took advantage of their good fortune and converted the turnover into a third-and-goal Stroud scramble to give Houston a 14-13 lead, its first of the game.

Jacksonville answered with a 75-yard drive capped by a Lawrence touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley to retake a 21-14 lead following a successful 2-point conversion.

The score set up the thrilling fourth quarter that saw the Texans fall just short of a chance to keep pace with the Jaguars in the division.

It was a scintillating back-and-forth battle featuring a pair of former top-two draft picks at quarterback. Lawrence, who made his first Pro Bowl after his second season in 2022, completed 22 of 38 passes for 364 yards with one touchdown and the interception aided by the missed holding call. The yardage total was 4 short of his career high.

Stroud, who's well on his way to a likely Rookie of the Year trophy and his own Pro Bowl berth in a remarkable first season in Houston, completed 26 of 36 passes for 304 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. He added 47 yards on the ground as both quarterbacks rushed for a single score.

Rough day for officials

While both quarterbacks shone, referee Clay Martin’s officiating crew did not. The missed hold on the Lawrence interception wasn’t the only miscue on a day that saw multiple critical calls impact both teams.

A 62-yard pass from Stroud to Dell in the first quarter was negated by a questionable illegal shift penalty.

Instead of moving deep into Jacksonville territory, Houston punted two plays later.

A questionable defensive holding penalty extended a fourth-quarter Jaguars drive on third down.

The Jaguars kicked a field goal on the drive to extend their lead to 24-14. Officials also missed an obvious false start on Jaguars left tackle Walker Little in the second half.

While both teams have their rightful gripes, the Jaguars walk away from Sunday with a critical win and in contention for the AFC's No. 1 seed.