8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Panthers -7.5, Over/Under: 43.5
Week Three comes early for tonight’s combatants, as the improved Carolina Panthers travel to the Lone Star State to battle the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. With two weeks in the books, it’s safe to say that the Panthers (2-0, T-1st in NFC South) are one of the most improved teams in the National Football League, as (Head Coach) Matt Rhule has his charges primed to make a leap in his second season with the franchise. Even with the effects of the pandemic greatly limiting his ability to implement his schemes and evaluate his personnel, the signs were there throughout the campaign that Carolina was secretly on the precipice of becoming a winning team again. Yes, they managed to finish with only a 5-11 record, but they were nothing short of competitive with nine games decided by one possession, while (All-Pro Tailback) Christian McCaffrey (59 TCH, 324 YDS, 5.5 Y/T, 1 TD) was relegated to just two games due to injury. While a healthy McCaffrey has certainly helped in the early stages of 2021, the biggest difference thus far has been at Quarterback, where the Panthers believe that they’ve upgraded from Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold (68.5%, 584 YDS, 7.42 NY/A, 3 TD, 1 INT, 66.3 QBR). At this point, we should all be familiar with the story of Darnold, who was selected Third Overall in the loaded 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, only to spend the next three seasons in the driver’s seat of one of the ugliest train wrecks in the league. Though he certainly didn’t live up to the hype, New York absolutely FAILED in building a competent supporting cast around him, with the young signal-caller logging a disappointing 13-25 record in the Big Apple, accounting for forty-five touchdowns and thirty-nine interceptions in thirty-eight games. Following an utterly miserable 2020 in which Gang Green cratered to a 2-14 finish, the Jets offloaded Darnold in a trade with the Panthers, who were all-too happy to acquire the services of the 24-year old, with the hope that his arm strength will bring a different dimension to an Offense that clearly lacked it last season. Though it’s still early, this move has already paid HUGE dividends; the young signal-caller has flourished following a change of scenery, completing a career-high 68.5% of his attempts for an average of 292.0 yards on 7.42 net yards per attempt, both of which are also career-bests, with three touchdowns in comparison to one interception. A week after besting his former employers, Darnold dissected a Saints’ Defense that had previously wiped the floor with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in their Season Opener. This 26-7 affair wasn’t as close as that score would indicate, folks, for Carolina amassed sizeable advantages in a slew of categories, including total yards (383-128), first downs (28-6), passing yards (305-111), penalties (5/49 yards-11/115 yards), third down (8/15-2/11) and time of possession (38:22). Darnold completed 26-of-38 passes for 305 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception, while McCaffrey rushed for seventy-two yards and a score on twenty-four carries, while hauling in five balls for another sixty-five yards on six targets. Furthermore, (fourth-year Receiver) D.J. Moore (14 REC, 159 YDS, 11.4 Y/R, 1 TD) totaled eight receptions for seventy-nine yards and a touchdown on eleven targets, one of seven different Panthers to log a reception. Through two games the passing attack has shown considerable growth, improving from 258.1 yards per game on 6.6 net yards per attempt in 2020 to a more robust 292.0 yards (9th Overall) on 7.4 net yards per attempt (11th Overall). With that said, the attack isn’t a well-oiled machine quite yet, for Rhule would undoubtedly emphasize their struggles within the Red Zone, where they’ve breached the end zone on just 42.9% of their opportunities (25th Overall). Thankfully, the Defense has afforded them the luxury of being patient, for there hasn’t been a more effective unit at this point of campaign; the Panthers rank tops in the NFL in both points (10.5) and total yards (190.0) allowed, against the pass (143.5) and the run (46.5), as well as sacks (10) and on third down (25.0%). Granted, it’s early and one of their opponents was the Jets, but their utter domination of the Saints last weekend should not be understated. New Orleans’ Jameis Winston tossed five touchdowns against the Packers in Week One, only to be thwarted at every turn against (Defensive Coordinator) Phil Snow’s troops, who hit him on eleven occasions, sacked him four times, and picked him off twice, en route to yielding a scant EIGHTY net passing yards. (Linebacker) Hasson Reddick (7 TKL, 1 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF), who arrived via Free Agency following a career year with the Cardinals, accounting for two hits an 1.5 sacks, while (2021 8th Overall Pick) Jaycee Horn (3 TKL, 1 INT, 1 PD) logged his first interception. The victory over New Orleans was notable for the fact that it snapped a four-game losing streak to their NFC South rival, and was only their third in the last nine meetings. Rhule & Co will be looking to keep their momentum rolling into tonight’s showdown with the Texans, for a victory will mark the first time that this franchise has began a campaign 3-0 since 2015, in which they strung together fourteen straight wins en route to advancing all the way to Super Bowl L.
Meanwhile, a season that has already been plenty chaotic has become more so for the Texans (1-1, T-1st in AFC South), who find themselves forced into making yet another change at Quarterback. After an impressive showing in their Season Opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars (37-21), Houston lost (veteran journeyman) Tyrod Taylor (70.5%, 416 YDS, 9.20 NY/A, 3 TD, 0 INT, 84.6 QBR) midway through their 31-21 defeat at the Cleveland Browns, as the 32-year old limped off the field with a strained hamstring. With tonight’s contest providing little time to rest, the team must now turn to (Rookie) Davis Mills (44.4%, 102 YDS, 5.00 NY/A, 1 TD, 1 INT, 10.1 QBR), whom they selected in the Third Round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Needless to say, this is a MAJOR change for (Head Coach) David Culley’s charges; on his fourth team in five years, Taylor has more than just the requisite experience to succeed in the NFL, for his mobility makes him a versatile chess piece for any Offense, and though Mills was far from terrible in Cleveland, he’s not going to extend plays like Taylor can, and he’s not comfortable at this point in his career tempting the rush to throw downfield. One really must feel for Taylor, who finds himself in murky waters with a third consecutive franchise; back in 2018 he lasted just three games before eventually giving way to (No. One Overall Pick) Baker Mayfield, and just last season he was pulled right before the Season Opener after (inexplicably) suffering a punctured lung from the Chargers’ Medical Staff, paving the way for (No. Five Overall Pick) Justin Herbert to take the starting job and never look back. While this current injury is only expected to sideline him for a few weeks and we doubt that Mills will supplant him in the staring lineup for long, you can’t blame the former Pro-Bowler for being paranoid. Of course, Houston is in this position due to the off-field indiscretions of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Deshaun Watson, who is unlikely to see the field at any point this campaign after an Offseason of revelations including a ridiculous TWENTY-TWO lawsuits filed against the 26-year old citing sexual harassment, sexual assault, and all-in-all poor behavior. Oh, and did we mention that these issues came not long after he requested a trade? Simply put, this is far from an ideal scenario for either Culley or (General Manager) Nick Caserio, who in their first season together in Houston suddenly find themselves between a proverbial rock and a hard place; Watson no longer wants to play for them, but his murky legal standing has made any potential of a blockbuster trade impossible, with no team willing to part ways with the war chest of capital that the Texans are asking for (reportedly three First Round Picks, plus players, and that’s the starting point). In the meantime, all they can do take it one week at a time, for this season while being very much a transitive one, will largely be spent developing an identity, with Culley looking to prove the naysayers wrong. At 66-years old, Culley was as curious a choice if there ever was one, with the longtime assistant spending over two decades under the wing of Andy Reid (1999-2016) and John Harbaugh (2019-2020), though never ascended to the role of Coordinator. Many thought that Caserio, a longtime scout and Director of Player Personnel with the New England Patriots, would dive into the Bill Belichick Coaching Tree, making his decision to hire Culley all the more surprising. With that said, there is no franchise in the NFL that is in more need of a makeover than the Texans, who in the last two seasons have not only seen the Watson Saga unfold, but have also been the subject of an exodus of leaders and talent, with the likes of (All-Pros) DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt very critical of Management on their way out of town. The sense is that this situation with Watson will eventually come to a conclusion with the three-time Pro-Bowler in all likelihood playing for another team, and Houston will be able to properly move on into the next stages of this rebuild, though in the meantime they’re going to navigate the waters as best they can.