HOUSTON - Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera subscribes to a motto on game day that's simple in theory but difficult in reality.
"Start fast and finish strong."
The Panthers easily executed the first part of the plan Sunday for the second consecutive game, but in the third quarter it began to look like the second part – the most important part – might again elude them.
"We had been up 21 points, but in that third quarter, it was like, 'Oh man, it can't happen again,'" Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "Then we had a lot of guys just grit their teeth and say they're fed up, and we executed."
The Panthers let a 21-0 halftime lead shrink to 21-13 before the offense put together a long touchdown drive to turn things back around and key Carolina to a 28-13 victory over the AFC South champion Houston Texans.
The Panthers (5-9) won their third consecutive road game while snapping a seven-game winning streak for the Texans (10-4), who had won five of their six games at Reliant Stadium.
The victory came one week after a 23-7 halftime lead at home to the Atlanta Falcons wasn't enough.
"This is a huge step," Rivera said. "For us to come in and beat this team, with the No. 1-ranked defense and a quality running game, it speaks to our abilities and what we can become. This really shows us the type of potential we have to continue to grow with the guys in this locker room."
Carolina bolted out to a 21-0 halftime lead, but the Texans dominated the third quarter. Their top-ranked defense held the Panthers to one first down, and their dangerous offense finally found its footing behind running back Arian Foster.
But then, with the crowd at a fever pitch, the Panthers orchestrated the response they failed to produce a week ago. They reawakened with an 80-yard touchdown march to extend the lead to 28-13 with 9:54 left, punctuated by a 24-yard run by running back DeAngelo Williams.
"It was beautiful – just like it was drawn up," Williams said. "The defense kind of shifted over, and when that happened, I was thinking, 'Don't fall. Don't fall.' And then when I got the ball, it was, 'Don't get caught. Don't get caught.'
"If we allowed them to keep the momentum, they were going to run us out of here, but we stepped up. The offensive line put it on their back."
The Texans refused to go away quietly, coming right back down the field with a 50-yard kickoff return and consecutive pass plays of 24 and 22 yards. But on third-and-goal from the 9, Panthers linebacker James Anderson intercepted rookie quarterback T.J. Yates in the end zone with 7:25 to play.
The Panthers then methodically picked up five first downs to run out the clock.
"We've thrown the ball a lot, run reverses and options and everything, but that fourth quarter was just downhill football," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It felt great, even though we were beat up and bruised."
Carolina forced Houston to play catch-up by dominating every aspect of the first half, coming up with stop after stop on defense while pulling out all the stops on offense.
On the game's second play, Anderson and fellow linebacker Jordan Senn forced Foster to fumble, and Anderson recovered at Houston's 26-yard line.
Four plays later, wide receiver Steve Smith got a step on cornerback Johnathan Joseph down the sideline, and Newton lofted one perfectly to Smith for a 26-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
After Houston kicker Neil Rackers missed a 49-yard field goal late in the first quarter, Carolina's offense went to work yet again. A 19-yard catch by Smith on third-and-15 jumpstarted the drive. Then a 17-yard grab by tight end Greg Olsen on third-and-3 set up tight end Jeremy Shockey for a 9-yard scoring catch.
The best was yet to come. After the Texans crossed midfield for the third time in half, Carolina's defense again stiffened, and Senn again made a play, stepping in the path of a Yates pass and returning his first career interception 21 yards to the Houston 48.
On the resulting drive, the Panthers dug deep into offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's playbook to increase their advantage to 21-0.
First, wide receiver Armanti Edwards lined up behind center as Newton spread wide right, and Edwards took the shotgun snap and passed left to Smith for an 11-yard gain.
That looked tame compared to the scoring play from the 7, when fullback Richie Brockel lined up beside Newton in the shotgun and Newton sheepishly laid off the ball between Brockel's legs and into his hands. Brockel remained stationary while Newton faked like he was running with the ball to the right, then Brockel took off around the left side untouched for his first NFL touchdown.
"I came around the corner, and all of the O-line and Olsen had it blocked up perfect. I was thinking, 'Just don't trip and fall now,' " Brockel said. "The defense really bit on that option because we've run that so well this season with Cam. That opened up the back side for me."
The good times gave way to some serious adversity in the third quarter, but the defense – even while facing another round of injuries – minimized the damage until the offense could get it going again.
A 42-yard punt return by Jacoby Jones after the Panthers offense went three-and-out to open the half changed the momentum and helped Houston move inside Carolina's 10-yard line. However, the Texans settled for a 26-yard field goal.
Houston gained 75 yards on its next drive, but Carolina again held in the red zone, forcing a 34-yard field goal by Rackers that made it 21-6.
Houston finally found the end zone on their next drive that started in the third quarter and ended early in the fourth, going 68 yards behind hard running from Foster, who capped it with a 1-yard plunge to make it 21-13 with 13:48 remaining.
From there, however, the Panthers closed it out in style.
"The thing that we've been missing is somebody stepping up and making a play," Rivera said. "We made the type of plays you have to make to take it to the next level."