CHARLOTTE – Following three-plus quarters of grind-it-out football, the Carolina Panthers pounced with consecutive explosive plays that completely changed the complexion of their home opener Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Then it was back to the grind, with players and fans alike grinding their teeth nervously as the Panthers battled to hang on.
"It was hot out there, so I was sweating regardless. But yeah, that was a little bit closer than we wanted," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said after Carolina held on for a 24-17 victory. "We have to be able to put teams away when we have a chance. That's something we can improve on, and it's good to be able to improve after a win."
It looked a win and a 2-0 start for sure when back-to-back snaps with about nine minutes left created the first two-score advantage of the day.
The first one occurred when Ryan Mallett, the Texans' fifth-year quarterback making his third career start, tried a little too hard to bring Houston back from a 17-10 deficit. On second-and-long from Houston's 29-yard line, Mallett forced a ball deep over the middle that linebacker A.J. Klein – starting in place sidelined superstar Luke Kuechly – picked off in front of tight end Garrett Graham.
"We talked through the week that Mallett was going to put some balls there, and we just had to capitalize," Klein said. "I just rolled, and Mallett put it there."
Klein's interception and 8-yard return set Carolina up at Houston's 36, and the offense went for the jugular. Off play action, quarterback Cam Newton rifled one into the middle of the end zone for Philly Brown, who went up and snagged it before cornerback Johnathan Joseph had a chance to do anything about it.
Just like that, with 8:53 to play, the Panthers led 24-10.
"We had been trying to set that up the whole game, but we kept putting ourselves in tough situations," Brown said. "There we got the opportunity to do it, and Coach (Mike) Shula dialed up a heck of a play."
The lead seemed insurmountable in what he mostly been a defensive struggle, but it was not. Mallett, who got the start on the strength of a strong second-half showing in relief of Brian Hoyer in a Week 1 loss, led the Texans right back down the field. Not known for being fleet of foot – he threw 58 times while rushing just once – Mallett completed the subsequent drive with that one rush attempt, a 6-yard scramble for a touchdown on fourth-and-4 with 6:31 to play.
The Panthers whittled the clock to 2:44 on their ensuing drive but couldn't put it away when Graham Gano had his 53-yard field goal blocked. Mallett moved the Texans in position to possibly tie it, advancing to the Carolina 14 with 22 seconds to go. For a brief second it looked like defensive tackle Kawann Short, playing without running mate Star Lotulelei for the second consecutive game, might have sealed it by forcing intentional grounding with less than 10 seconds left.
But the Texans had a timeout left that they used to avoid a 10-second runoff required by rule, and a replay review actually put 17 seconds on the clock with two shots left from the 26-yard line.
"It would have been nice if they had called it a sack because KK made a great rush move, got inside and got his hands on the quarterback," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The scary part was – and the referees were right – they had to put 17 seconds back on the clock. That made it even longer."
But the defense stood up to the test, giving up a short gain before good coverage left Mallett to try to thread a pass to top receiver DeAndre Hopkins on fourth down that didn't connect.
"We kept fighting and did the things that we needed to do to win," Rivera said. "In this league, when you win it's a big deal – it doesn't matter how, when or where. We fought through and made something happen."
Defense dominated on both sides throughout much of the first half. The Panthers forced five three-and-outs over the course of the Texans' eight first-half possessions, only giving up an early field goal that put Houston up 3-0.
Carolina got a field goal shortly before half but claimed the only touchdown of the first two quarters in between the boots. After mustering a total of three first downs through four drives, Newton jumpstarted Carolina's drive to open the second quarter with a 15-yard run that seemed to spark the offense.
"That got the chains moving, and that seemed to settle us into the game," said tight end Greg Olsen, who followed with his first of a team-high six receptions on the next snap. "Before that it was just kind of a herky-jerky start. There was really no rhythm, but that got us going and we started moving the ball."
Starting with that run from Newton, who ended up pacing Carolina with 76 rushing yards that helped keep Houston's defensive end duo of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney at bay, all five plays on the drive gained at least 9 yards. The final one went for 25 yards, a touchdown pass to Ted Ginn, Jr. on a sweet route that left Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye to play a losing game of catch-up.
"It was what DBs hate – a double move," Ginn said. "After the spin, it was all up to Cam."
The Texans, trailing 10-3 at halftime, went no-huddle to start the third quarter and pieced together a long scoring drive. After mustering just 93 first-half yards, they marched 80 yards for the tying score, capped by a remarkable catch in the back of the end zone by Graham on third-and-3 from the 8.
But after the Texans used up 6:25 to tie the score, Carolina responded with an 80-yard drive of its own in 7:25. Aided by Houston penalties that wiped out a third-down stop and an interception, the Panthers reclaimed the lead when Newton took off through the middle on first-and-goal from the 2 and leapt over a low tackle attempt by free safety Rakim Moore. Newton flipped into the end zone, giving the Panthers a 17-10 edge with 1:04 to go in the third quarter – a lead they never relinquished despite the close call at the end.
"I have always wanted a trampoline," said Newton, who loved seeing his Panthers remain undefeated regardless of the details. "Throughout the game we had ups and downs."
View game action photos from Carolina's 24-17 win over Houston.