Panthers at Texans score: Sam Darnold guides Carolina to 3-0 start, despite loss of Christian McCaffrey
It was an ugly matchup on Thursday, with Houston struggling to move the ball
"Thursday Night Football" can bring out some ugly performances depending on the health of the two teams squaring off on a short week, and Week 3's Panthers-Texans kickoff exemplified that. While Sam Darnold looked sharp out of the gate and consistently found D.J. Moore for big plays, with Carolina's dominant defense doing its part to keep Houston under wraps and secure a SCORE victory, neither side appeared particularly comfortable under the prime-time lights. More than that, the Panthers saw a third straight win -- to remain unbeaten atop the NFC South alongside the reigning champion Buccaneers -- come with a cost, specifically concerning injuries to key starters Christian McCaffrey and Jaycee Horn.
Here are some other takeaways from Carolina's march to 3-0 against the Texans on Thursday night:
Why the Panthers won
Two reasons, primarily: No. 1, they could move the ball. While Darnold faced an unusual amount of pressure during the game's slog of a midsection, absorbing three sacks and taking a number of other big hits, he remained effective on the move, showcasing his best stuff at both the start and finish of Thursday's win. Moore was a big help, consistently finding wide-open space in the Texans secondary, to the tune of 125+ yards. The second reason Carolina sealed the win: Defense. While the highly esteemed unit occasionally allowed rookie quarterback Davis Mills to find chunk plays, it largely stayed suffocating, keeping the Texans to under 4 yards per play late into the fourth and thriving on third downs. The victory isn't without reason for concern, however, with both McCaffrey and Horn banged up and Darnold's O-line threatening to leave the ex-Jets QB frazzled, if not hurt himself.
Why the Texans lost
It wasn't for lack of effort from their defense, at least early on. The Panthers entered halftime with just seven points on the board, a one-point advantage over Houston, in part because of an aggressive push from defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's front. But Carolina's slip-ups on Thursday seemed mostly self-inflicted. The Texans really lost because they just couldn't do much with the ball. Mills never looked too small for the moment, thrust into Tyrod Taylor's role, even hitting Brandin Cooks on some big shots. But he also struggled to string together successful plays in the face of Panthers pressure, with Mark Ingram, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay combining for a near-nonexistent run game. They were fortunate to stick around with Carolina for so long.
Leading by just a point more than halfway through the third quarter, the Panthers finally found a rhythm on offense with Royce Freeman finding a big gain in place of McCaffrey and Darnold connecting on some deeper throws. Then, on first-and-goal, tight end Tommy Tremble (!) got the handoff and scooted into the end zone for a score, putting Carolina up 14-6 with the Texans offense already looking awfully lifeless.
Play of the game
This was not a game chock-full of highlights, but Darnold did show off his wheels on the read-option rushing touchdown to put the first Panthers points on the board:
The Panthers (3-0) will be back on the road in Week 4, when they visit the Cowboys, who will be coming off a short week following a Monday night clash with the Eagles. The Texans (1-2), meanwhile, will visit the Bills (1-1), who will be coming off a matchup with Washington this Sunday.
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