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Big Mo: Sam Darnold coaxed clutch plays from unproven receivers in 24-9 win over Texans

Let’s look at the biggest play that swung momentum in the victory over the Texans.

Carolina Panthers v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Big Mo series highlights the plays (or series of plays) that had the biggest impact on swinging the Panthers win percentage as calculated by ESPN. In Week 3 Carolina pulled away in the second half for a 24-9 Thursday night road victory over the Houston Texans to go to 3-0 on the season.


The Panthers came into this game as the favorites with their league-leading defense facing off against a rookie quarterback in Davis Mills making his first NFL start. Carolina’s win probability chart has something of a “V” shape as they came in as favorites, built an early lead, floundered by playing some uninspiring football in the second and third quarters, then pulled away late.

First quarter 11:15 - Panthers 0, Texans 0

Darnold moves the chains, twice (50% to 73% Panthers win percentage): Carolina began the game with a three-and-out. Houston did the same on their first possession. On the Panthers second possession they faced another three-and-out on a third-and-1 which Sam Darnold converted on a quarterback sneak. Three plays later Darnold faced third-and-9 and hooked up with DJ Moore for a 29-yard gain. This key drive ended with a Sam Darnold rushing touchdown and a 7-0 Panthers lead, boosting their win percentage from 50% to 73%.

Second quarter 3:27 - Panthers 7, Texans 0

Texans close the first half strong (82% to 57%): There was a huge momentum shift the Texans way over a three-minute span at the end of the second quarter. The Panthers led 7-0 and took possession with 2:07 left in the half. Sam Darnold & Co. were forced into a three-and-out and burned all of 31 seconds off the clock. Carolina’s normally stout defense got shredded in the two-minute drill by rookie Davis Mills who went six-for-six (minus spiking the ball to stop the clock) to lead an impressive touchdown drive. Joey Slye missed the extra point for the Texans, giving the Panthers a 7-6 halftime lead and a win percentage hovering just north of 50%.

Third quarter 10:37 - Panthers 7, Texans 6

Three big plays set up Tremble’s touchdown (56% to 80%): To start the third quarter the Panthers defense forced a punt. On Carolina’s subsequent drive the offense ripped off three consecutive big plays to swing momentum: a 16-yard reception by DJ Moore, a 13-yard run by Royce Freeman, and an unexpected 25-yard grab by Alex Erickson. These three chunk plays set up a seven-yard touchdown run by Tommy Tremble and a 14-6 Panthers lead. This series of plays caused Carolina’s win percentage to spike to 80%.

Fourth quarter 15:00 - Panthers 14, Texans 6

Rookies Marshall and Tremble set up a field goal (82% to 93%): Nearing the end of the third quarter the Panthers faced third-and-8 when Sam Darnold connected with rookie Terrace Marshall for just enough to get a first down to extend the drive. Three plays later fellow rookie Tommy Tremble hauled in a 30-yard reception down to the Houston 12 to set up a field goal. The Panthers 17-6 lead early in the fourth quarter basically put the game away.

Big Mo MVP - Sam Darnold

Carolina’s quarterback found a number of different receivers in the plays that swung momentum. It’s not surprising to see DJ Moore hauling in two of these clutch receptions given his WR1 status, but Darnold also found Alex Erickson, Terrace Marshall, and Tommy Tremble in clutch spots. With Christian McCaffrey missing the majority of the game, Darnold did an excellent job trusting his supporting cast and setting them up for success when it mattered most.

What I liked

Another dominant defensive effort. The dynamic duo of Brian Burns and Haason Reddick each showing up in the sack ledger. Donte Jackson’s solid open-field tackling. DJ Moore’s continued brilliance with eight receptions for 126 yards. Joe Brady’s creative play calls near the end zone to create a Sam Darnold walk-in rushing touchdown and a surprise jet sweep score for Tommy Tremble. Obscure Alex Erickson coming from out of nowhere to haul in a 25-yard catch to set up Tremble’s touchdown. Watching Sam Darnold once again look like a completely competent, largely effective 300-yard passer.

What I didn’t like

Multiple boneheaded defensive penalties for simply lining up in the neutral zone. Going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Houston five yard line while already leading 7-0 as kicking a field goal to go up 10-0 (two scores) would’ve put Davis Mills in a huge early hole. Sam Darnold fumbling twice when holding the ball too long in a collapsing pocket, but luckily Carolina recovered both fumbles. Chuba Hubbard getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage on numerous occasions before some decent late runs. A host of bad calls going against the Panthers to essentially keep the Texans in the game, but then again I’m biased. And, of course, Jaycee Horn breaking his foot.

What I REALLY didn’t like

Watching Christian McCaffrey go out with a hamstring injury with 12:13 left in the second quarter after being utilized far too much coming into tonight’s game. After Week 1 I warned, “Christian McCaffrey’s 30 touches are way too many. Giving him that workload every week over a 17 game season — a total of 510 touches — will likely end with CMC in street clothes.” After Week 2 I observed, “Carolina can’t keep giving Christian McCaffrey 30 touches every week without running him into the ground.”

CMC was injured early in the second quarter against the Texans and had already recorded nine touches - seven rushes and two receptions. He was well on his way to another 30-touch outing. We will never know if McCaffrey would’ve been injured in this one if he would’ve had, say, 24 touches in each of his first two games versus his actual 30, but it’s not surprising to see him already suffering an injury. It was just a matter of time.