3 Takeaways from Panthers' Week 3 Win
The Panthers dominated for most of the night and pulled away late for a 24-9 victory at NRG Stadium, improving to 3-0. While Carolina hasn't had the toughest schedule to open the year (having previously faced the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints), it's still taking care of business.
Sam Darnold has impressed in his first season as the Panthers' starting quarterback, and he passed for 304 yards and had a pair of rushing touchdowns in leading them to victory over the Texans. Carolina's offense amassed 407 total yards, with Darnold's second score (a 1-yard run) sealing the win with a little more than minutes to go.
Here are three takeaways from the Panthers' Week 3 victory.
McCaffrey's Injury Overshadows Offense's Success
Darnold continued to impress as the leader of the Panthers offense Thursday. Additionally, Carolina committed no turnovers and wide receiver DJ Moore racked up 126 yards on eight catches. However, the biggest takeaway from the offensive side on this night was the loss of star running back Christian McCaffrey.
After being limited to three games last season because of numerous injuries, McCaffrey got hurt again Thursday, exiting in the second quarter with a hamstring issue. It's unclear how long he might be out, but Carolina head coach Matt Rhule said after the game that McCaffrey will be undergoing an MRI.
If McCaffrey misses any time, the Panthers will have to rely on rookie Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman out of the backfield. That would be a considerable downgrade, as Hubbard had 11 carries for 52 yards and Freeman had five carries for 17 yards Thursday. However, the Panthers are remaining optimistic.
"We'll be all right without him," Darnold said, per ESPN's David Newton. "Obviously, we want him back. But I want him to take his time and make sure he's good for the end of the season.''
Carolina's offense is much less dangerous without McCaffrey, who is a key contributor in both the running and passing games. And for the second season running, it's going to be difficult to try to replace his production.
Defense Continues Dominant Start to the Season
One of the biggest reasons for the Panthers' strong start to the campaign is their defensive play. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Carolina's 573 total yards allowed through three games is the fewest by an NFL team since the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles.
The Panthers held the Texans to 193 total yards Thursday night. It wasn't a surprise considering Houston has one of the weaker offenses in the NFL and was being led by rookie quarterback Davis Mills in his first career start.
Still, the Panthers performed as many expected them to, and it led to another victory. They collected four sacks, including 1.5 from Haason Reddick, and held the Texans to the three points in the second half. However, Carolina's defense is also a bit banged up, as it lost a pair of key contributors when cornerbacks Jaycee Horn (foot) and Juston Burris (groin) both exited with injuries in the third quarter.
"As a defense, it doesn't matter who's playing. The brand has to stay the same," Reddick said, per The Athletic's Joseph Person. "The goal is the same, no matter who's playing. You have to go out there and do your job at a very high level so that we can contribute to a win."
So far, that's worked for the Panthers. But they are going to face their biggest challenge yet when they take on the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4, which should show just how strong this defense actually is.
Panthers in Early Position to Contend for Playoff Berth
The Panthers missed the playoffs each of the past three years and have only made it once (2017) in the previous five seasons. However, there's a growing chance that the drought could end in 2021.
This is only the fifth time in franchise history that Carolina has started 3-0. The previous two times it happened (2003 and 2015), the Panthers reached the Super Bowl. In 1996, they made it to the NFC Championship Game. The only time it hasn't worked out well for was in 2002, when they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
It's going to be tough for Carolina to win the NFC South despite its strong start. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the Super Bowl champions and have also yet to lose a game this season, and they are going to be difficult for the Panthers to beat.
However, Carolina is in a great position to turn this hot start into an NFC wild-card berth, especially considering the other two teams in its division (the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons) don't appear to be top postseason contenders this year.
It may be early, but the Panthers seem to have taken a big step forward from 2020, when they went 5-11 in Rhule's first year as head coach. Don't be surprised if they end up with 10 or 11 wins and work their way back into the playoffs.