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Panthers 24, Texans 9: Insta-reaction as Carolina loses McCaffrey but moves to 3-0

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Panthers at Texans

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 3 game.

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The Carolina Panthers survived another Christian McCaffrey injury behind impressive quarterback Sam Darnold and a stingy defense, moving to 3-0 Thursday night in a 24-9 road victory over Houston that also raised several questions.

Can the Panthers win games against higher-level competition without McCaffrey, if his hamstring injury proves serious?

Can the secondary hold up after losing two starters — cornerback Jaycee Horn (foot) and safety Juston Burris (groin) — Thursday?

And ultimately, will Carolina’s fast start be a mirage or something that will last?

For the third straight game, Carolina never trailed. Yet it was a difficult — and costly — win. Carolina’s offensive line was exposed a number of times, blowing a number of assignments and allowing Darnold to take some big hits.

But Carolina got the sort of huge performances you need from some of its lesser-known players like rookie tight end Tommy Tremble (a 7-yard TD run, a 30-yard reception). And Darnold came up big numerous times, especially on a 91-yard touchdown drive that broke the game open in the third quarter.

Christian McCaffrey’s hamstring

Christian McCaffrey is one of the three best running backs in football and maybe the best — when healthy.

But those two words — when healthy — are beginning to take on ominous meaning with McCaffrey. He got hurt in the second quarter of this game on a run to the left, a non-contact injury as he prepared to try and speed up and turn the corner.

McCaffrey spent about 20 minutes under a blue injury tent, although he was declared out of the game almost immediately due to a hamstring injury. Hamstring injuries are tricky and often mean a multiple-week rehabilitation.

Without him, Carolina lost its way offensively for a while, as running back Chuba Hubbard couldn’t make a critical 4th-and-1 from Houston’s 5 and the offensive line woes were far more apparent without McCaffrey to paper them over. In the final 12 minutes of the first half, without McCaffrey, Carolina made only one first down. The second half, though, was much better for the offense, which scored 17 of its 24 points after halftime.

McCaffrey missed 13 of 16 games in 2020 with three separate injuries.

Darnold does a Cam Newton impression

Darnold is never going to be as powerful a runner as Newton was in his prime, but he had two huge rushing touchdowns Thursday night. The first one was relatively easy, on a run-pass option where he scored standing up. The second was very difficult, as Darnold lost his helmet on a third-and-goal from the 1 and got pushed into the end zone by his teammates in a human tug-of-war. That fourth-quarter score put the Panthers up by an insurmountable 24-9 score.

In the meantime, Darnold had his second straight 300-yard passing game, too. He was awfully good for the third straight week.

Slye gonna Slye

You just knew former Panther placekicker Joey Slye was going to do something worth mentioning in this game, and of course he did. Twice.

After Houston scored its first points with some fine two-minute offense at the end of the first half, it appeared they had tied the game. However, Slye pushed the extra point wide right, leaving Carolina with a 7-6 lead at halftime.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn (8) is helped off the field after an injury during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Houston. Justin Rex AP

Houston coach David Culley had a chance to send Slye out for a 57-yard field goal, down by a point, in the third quarter. He didn’t have enough faith in Slye to do that, though, and Houston punted instead, also conservatively passing up on a 4th-and-4 opportunity from Carolina’s 39.

Slye then had a 53-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter and drilled it through the uprights, briefly cutting Carolina’s lead to 17-9.

Zane Gonzalez, meanwhile, had a strong game kicking for the Panthers, making a short field goal attempt and all three extra points and also booting several of his kickoffs for touchbacks, which was a problem the week before.

Defensive flags hurt Panthers

For the Panthers, this was uncharacteristic.

The Panthers had some iffy calls on them defensively Thursday night, but they also had some bad errors. Defensive end Brian Burns was flagged for two of Carolina’s four defensive offsides calls, and Donte Jackson had a third-down pass interference call (this was one of the iffy ones) in the third quarter. Daviyon Nixon also had a deserved roughing-the-passer call. We’re judging this defense at a very high standard now, but this wasn’t one of their cleaner performances even though they held Houston to only nine points.

Still, Carolina mostly held rookie quarterback Davis Mills in check, sacking him four times and harassing him many more.

This story was originally published September 23, 2021 11:15 PM.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 15 national APSE awards. He also hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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