HOUSTON – In a few moments, many of the good feelings that the Panthers generated in an undefeated start disappeared.
And now they have to wonder when they might return.
The Panthers beat the Texans 24-9 Thursday night to improve to 3-0, but everything pales in view of a few injuries that could change the course of a season.
Christian McCaffrey left early in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return, and rookie corner kicker Jaycee Horn left in the third quarter with a foot injury and was run off the field and ruled out.
McCaffrey spent 20 minutes in the medicine tent before slowly walking to the locker room.
At the time, the Panthers were leading 7-0, handling the Texans with the same pressure they showed in the first two games.
Before a last-minute half-touchdown run, they had held the Texans to 44 yards in total offense, and it didn’t seem like much. But rookie quarterback Davis Mills found Anthony Miller for a touchdown, and former Panthers kicker Joey Slye missed the extra point so the Panthers could limp into the half with a 7-6 lead.
Those were the first points the Panthers allowed in a first half of this season.
When Horn was run in after a contactless injury, it made a bad night even worse.
The election in the first round had immediate pain and had to be helped off the field by two members of the athletic training staff. The Panthers were already without veteran cornerback AJ Bouye, who was inactive after returning from his suspension four days ago.
Veteran safety Juston Burris also left with a groin injury, suffering two games before Horns.
– It would not be wrong to say that the wheels fell off the Panthers offensive when McCaffrey left the game.
In the 11 games in the first half after his early exit, he managed 14 net yards.
Pass protection grew leaky (three sacks) and Sam Darnold lost the ball twice (both happily restored by center Matt Paradis).
In his honor, the offense stabilized in the second half, led by a steady Darnold who went 10-of-13 for 146 yards in the final two quarters.
-The Panthers became unconventional on their second score, with Royce Freeman’s first carry as the Panther in 13 yards, followed by Darnold hitting Alex Erickson for a 25-yard pass, and it then got weirder.
Close end Tommy Tremble took a fast jet-sweep run 7 yards to a touchdown, giving the Panthers some breathing space.
It’s the kind of diverse violation they’ll need if McCaffrey misses time.
– The Panthers continued to play suffocating defense, with four sacks more. They held the Texans to 193 yards, and they came into the night ranked first in the league in allowed points and yards (and sacks and a lot of other things).
It will obviously get tougher if the damage increases, but the Panthers could do what they needed to on Thursday as Pyrrhic a win as it might have been.