The Carolina Panthers dominated the Houston Texans on the road Thursday night on a national stage, taking home a 24-9 victory. The Panthers are now 3-0 for the first time since 2015, when the club finished the regular season 15-1 and made it to Super Bowl 50 before losing to Denver.
On the down side, the Panthers lost two of their first round picks to injury during Thursday’s win.
Early in the second quarter Thursday, running back Christian McCaffrey left the game after injuring his hamstring on a run that ended deep in Houston territory. McCaffrey was quickly ruled out for the rest of the game, and the All-Pro running back spent about 20 minutes inside the injury tent on the sideline before walking back to the locker room with a considerable limp.
The 25-year-old McCaffrey, who made first-team All-Pro in 2019 and second-team All-Pro in 2018, is coming off a season where he missed 13 games with multiple injuries. While the Carolina offense is in a better spot to deal with his absence than it was in 2020, the impact of his departure was felt almost immediately Thursday.
A few plays after McCaffrey got hurt, the Panthers — who led 7-0 — went for it on 4th-and-1 at Houston’s 5-yard line but were stuffed short of the line to gain. Carolina went 3-and-out on its final three drives of the second half, gaining just seven yards the rest of the quarter.
Things went from bad to worse in the second half on the injury front. In the third quarter, rookie corner Jaycee Horn, Carolina’s first-round pick in the 2021 draft, went down with a non-contact foot injury after getting his foot caught awkwardly in the turf. X-rays confirmed after the game that Horn broke multiple bones in his right foot. The expectation is for Carolina to place Horn on injured reserve sometime this week.
The Panthers also lost starting safety Justin Burris to a groin injury in the second half. Carolina’s defense didn’t waver, however, and held Houston to three points and just 93 yards of offense over the final two quarters. Through three games, the Panthers have allowed 10.0 points per game, their fewest in a three-game stretch to open a season since 2002.
Without McCaffrey on offense, the burden of leading Carolina on sustained drives fell heavily on the shoulders of Sam Darnold, who completed 23-of-34 passes for 304 yards and ran for two touchdowns. Darnold’s 888 passing yards this season are his most through a three-game stretch at any point during his NFL career.
Darnold’s favorite target Thursday was D.J. Moore, who caught eight of 12 targets for 126 yards. Rookie tight end Tommy Tremble also had an impact, hauling in his only target of the day for a 30-yard reception and scoring a rushing touchdown earlier in the game from 7 yards out on his first NFL touch.
The Panthers will have three extra days of rest as they prepare for their Week 4 game at Dallas on Oct. 3. The Cowboys are 1-1 on the season and play Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.