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‘Frankly, we should be 4-0’: McCaffrey wants more after another terrific game

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Panthers at Texans

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 3 game at Houston.

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After he had a career high in touches Sunday in a 16-10 road win over Houston, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was feeling pretty good about his 2-2 team.

“Frankly, we should be 4-0,” McCaffrey said afterward.

It’s understandable that McCaffrey has some confidence these days, because so far he has been lighting up the NFL in his third season (and making all his fantasy football owners very happy, too). McCaffrey ended up with 179 total yards Sunday on 37 touches and scored Carolina’s only touchdown. He carried the ball 27 times for 93 yards and caught 10 passes — on 10 targets — for 86 more.

McCaffrey was obviously sore after another heavy workload but said afterward: “I’m feeling good. Definitely (will) spend some time in the ice tub and move on to next week.”

His 179-yard effort would be a fairly extraordinary game for most NFL running backs. But that has become a fairly ordinary sort of Sunday for McCaffrey. He had come in averaging 150 total yards per game through Carolina’s first three games, which put him second in the NFL among all receivers and running backs.

In this game, there was no 76-yard TD burst like he had in the Panthers’ win against Arizona last week. McCaffrey’s longest play on those 37 touches was a 21-yard catch. His most dazzling play was good for only 8 yards but came on a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter — a double-tip to himself of an overthrown Kyle Allen pass, which McCaffrey then dove for and caught for a critical first down. Houston challenged McCaffrey’s catch and where the ball was spotted, but the call on the field stood.

“Glad I slid that far,” McCaffrey said, referring to the last 2 yards he gained on his headfirst slide. “If that was grass, I don’t know that was going to happen. Thankfully, it was turf.”

“He’s a great player,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said of McCaffrey. “Just something you have to know where he is on every play.”

McCaffrey now has 629 total yards through four games (157.3 average) and leads Carolina in touchdowns (four), receptions (25) and rushing yards (411). As I wrote recently, I believe right now he is the best back in the NFL.

“He had a massive game,” Allen said of McCaffrey. “It’s huge to know he’s going to be where he needs to be all the time.”

“He’s a great football player,” Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said of McCaffrey. “They obviously run their offense through him, and you can see why.”

Speaking of massive games, Panthers rookie kicker Joey Slye went 3-for-3 on field goals from 48, 55 and 26 yards. The former Virginia Tech kicker was out of the league in 2018 but is now 10-for-11 on the season and has been one of the Panthers’ brightest spots. His leg is so strong that he’s only had one kickoff returned in four games, too.

The Reid brothers started at safety for their respective teams. Eric, the older brother (age 27), played for the Panthers, limping off the field once in the second quarter but quickly returning. Justin, younger than Eric by five years, played for the Texans. Several members of the Reid family had on “split” jerseys, bearing the two Reids’ uniform numbers. Eric Reid ultimately outplayed his younger brother, recovering Deshaun Watson’s fourth-quarter fumble and also knocking down the game-ending Hail Mary. The two brothers exchanged jerseys after the game.

“When he was in high school, he didn’t think he wanted to play football,” Eric Reid said of Justin afterward. “Then he changed his mind, and I started trying to give him advice. To see him go from high school to Stanford and now I get to play against him, it’s one of the happiest football moments of my life.”

The Panthers like to say they have no No. 1 receiver, but they have a lot of good receivers. So far this season they have four receivers who have between 208 and 261 yards (DJ Moore, Greg Olsen, McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel). And a fifth receiver, Jarius Wright, has made big catches in each of the past two games.

Eric Davis, a standout Panthers cornerback and now an NFL analyst, always used to use the term “long foul balls” for deep throws that made fans gasp but ultimately just resulted in an incompletion. There were several big ones in this game.

Samuel got one hand on a deep ball but couldn’t haul in what would have been an early TD pass for Carolina. Watson overthrew Will Fuller, who was open by at least 5 yards, on what would have been a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. And then early in the third quarter, Watson had DeAndre Hopkins wide open for what would have been a 68-yard TD, but again Watson overthrew him.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel (10) makes a reception during pregame Sunday. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

It was 92 degrees outside in Houston on Sunday, but the roof at NRG Stadium was closed, so there was a lot of air conditioning going on inside.

Panthers kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud continued his uneven play. In the fourth quarter, instead of catching a punt at his own 38 with room to run, he mistimed it and allowed it to bounce all the way down to the Carolina 13. It was at least a 30-yard loss in field position, given how much room McCloud had.

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