The Carolina Panthers look like legitimate playoff contenders.
Carolina improved to 3-0 on the season with a 24-9 victory over the Houston Texans in Thursday's showdown at NRG Stadium. Sam Darnold led the way for the Panthers, who are looking to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2017 campaign.
It wasn't all good news, though, as running back Christian McCaffrey exited with a hamstring injury.
An impressive showing from Brandin Cooks wasn't enough for the Texans, who were without quarterback Tyrod Taylor and fell to 1-2 on the year.
Notable Player Stats
- Sam Darnold, QB, CAR: 23-of-34 passing for 304 yards; 2 rushing TDs
- DJ Moore, WR, CAR: 8 catches for 126 yards
- Davis Mills, QB, HOU: 19-of-28 passing for 168 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
- Brandin Cooks, WR, HOU: 9 catches for 112 yards
Panthers Continue to Impress Despite Injuries
The Panthers were one of the biggest positive surprises in the first two weeks of the season with the defense and an improved Darnold leading the way. While he struggled to establish much consistency on the New York Jets, Darnold has looked far more effective with offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
He was dialed in again on the Panthers' second drive with darts to DJ Moore, who consistently found openings in Houston's secondary. Darnold then capped off the possession with a read-option keeper when the Texans all followed McCaffrey.
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Sam Darnold played 38 career games with the Jets. He never recorded back-to-back 300+ yard games.<br><br>In just his third game as a Panther, he's recorded his second straight game with 300+ yards.<br><br>Carolina Sam is slinging. <a href="https://t.co/2pn8OkFyjc">pic.twitter.com/2pn8OkFyjc</a>
And that was the end of the positive momentum in the first half for Carolina's offense.
The visitors failed to convert a fourth down inside Houston's 10-yard line and then lost McCaffrey when he was ruled out with a hamstring injury. It was a particularly concerning development since the star running back played just three games last season.
That wasn't the end of the bad news for the Panthers, as cornerback Jaycee Horn suffered a broken foot, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
Fortunately for Carolina, the injuries didn't stop it from putting the game away in the second half. Moore continued to make plays in space, Tommy Tremble created some breathing room with an end-around touchdown run and Darnold converted multiple third downs to keep the clock moving and Houston's offense off the field.
It wasn't always pretty, but Darnold surpassed 300 yards through the air and iced the win with a quarterback sneak for a touchdown, and the defense set the tone for much of the game. That is a winning formula.
Texans Offense Fails to Keep Pace
The biggest storyline from Houston's perspective was the first career start for rookie Davis Mills.
While the Stanford product who the Texans selected with a third-round pick struggled when he entered for Taylor in a Week 2 loss to the Cleveland Browns, he came into Thursday's contest with far more practice reps with the first team under his belt.
Mills wasn't helped by conservative play-calling throughout much of the first half, but he looked comfortable running the two-minute drill before halftime. He marched Houston down the field with multiple connections to Cooks and then found the end zone with a pass to Anthony Miller.
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.<a href="https://twitter.com/AnthonyMiller_3?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@AnthonyMiller_3</a>'s first TD in deep steel blue and battle red 💪<br><br>📺 » <a href="https://twitter.com/nflnetwork?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@nflnetwork</a> <a href="https://t.co/uWgijEjPZf">pic.twitter.com/uWgijEjPZf</a>
The rookie didn't get much help from there, as Joey Slye missed the ensuing extra point, head coach David Culley decided to punt inside the Panthers' 40-yard line in the second half, the running game was largely invisible and the offensive line struggled to protect at times against Carolina's strong defense.
There were some positives for Mills, starting with an obvious connection with Cooks even though he didn't take many chances downfield when the game was still hanging in the balance.
Still, it wasn't nearly enough against a formidable defense, especially after Darnold found a rhythm in the second half. There were things to build on for the young quarterback, but the offense on display Thursday won't win many games at the NFL level.
Both teams are on the road in Week 4 when the Panthers face the Dallas Cowboys and the Texans play against the Buffalo Bills.