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.
“Christian strained his hamstring,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said later. “I don’t know the severity of it yet.”
McCaffrey spent about 20 minutes under a blue injury tent, although he was declared out of the game almost immediately due to the 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 described McCaffrey’s mood as “sad” after the game and that he told him “to take his time” rehabilitating the injury so he can be good “for the end of the season.”
Darnold does a Cam Newton impression
Darnold is never going to be as powerful a runner as Cam Newton was in his prime, but he had two huge rushing touchdowns Thursday night. It was the first NFL game in which he has scored twice on the ground.
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, completing 23 of 34 for 304 yards, with no TDs and no interceptions. He was awfully good for the third straight week. Darnold now has three rushing TDs for the year, which is a career single-season high. His 888 passing yards through three games is the most he’s had in any three-game stretch of his career.
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.
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. Gonzalez should have at least earned the kicking job against Dallas Oct. 3rd, in the Panthers’ next game, with that performance.
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 its cleaner performances, even though it held Houston to only nine points.
“There are a lot of things we need to clean up,” Burns said.
Still, Carolina mostly held rookie quarterback Davis Mills in check, sacking him four times and harassing him many more.