HOUSTON -- Cam who? All the gloom and doom that loomed over the Carolina Panthers after an 0-2 start and the loss of franchise quarterback Cam Newton to a mid-foot sprain has dissipated with consecutive road victories triggered by backup quarterback Kyle Allen and a rejuvenated defense.
Allen didn’t have a big day in Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the Houston Texans, a week after he had four touchdown passes at Arizona. He actually made this one more difficult than necessary with three lost fumbles.
But the defense that at times couldn’t buy a sack last season had six -- after eight against the Cardinals -- to reestablish itself as one of the best units in the league.
Coach Ron Rivera’s defensive playcalling, a mix of blitzes out of the 3-4 and 4-3 scheme, smothered the effectiveness of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Allen didn’t make fans totally forget Newton, who said in a YouTube video Friday that he would miss up to six weeks rehabbing a mild Lisfranc injury on his left foot. But Allen is 3-0 as a starter, including last year’s win over New Orleans in the regular-season finale.
Don’t look now, but the Panthers (2-2) are right back in the thick of the NFC South race and in the conversation as a playoff contender in the NFC.
Stock rising: If the New Orleans Saints (2-1) lose to Dallas (3-0) on Sunday night, the Panthers will be tied for first in the NFC South. This team is starting to jell, particularly defensively.
Promising trend: With 14 sacks in the past two games, the Panthers are doing what Rivera spent the offseason trying to improve. At this point last year, they had nine sacks en route to finishing 27th in the league in that category, the worst since Rivera took over in 2011. So the switch to a 3-4 base and emphasis to get more pressure on the quarterback with added speed is working. OLB-DE Mario Addison has 5.5 sacks, including five in the past two games.
Troubling trend: For all the good Allen has done, he has fumbled five times, losing four, in his two starts. Issues with turnovers at the University of Houston led him to be benched in the 2017 season before he declared for the draft. The bigger issue at Houston was interceptions. And to be fair, at least two of the lost fumbles came when he was blindsided. But he needs to get better at sensing the pressure and taking care of the ball.
Pivotal play: This gets a mention because it also was an amazing play by running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 93 yards and had 10 catches for 86 yards. On third-and-7 with just under 11 minutes to play Allen threw a high pass in the flat that McCaffrey got one hand on to tip the ball up, then got another hand on to give him a chance to corral it as he slid to the ground for a first down at the Texans’ 24. The catch held up on review, kept the clock rolling and prevented Houston from getting good field position on what otherwise would have been the ensuing punt.