Panthers still with plenty to prove

Carolina’s win over the Jets was impressive, but the Saints will be a true test

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey looked like his old self in his first action in more than 10 months, rushing for 98 yards and making nine receptions for 89 yards. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers got a win in their opener. That’s the good news.

The bad news: We’re still not entirely sure what it meant.

It was a “yeah, but” opening weekend for the Panthers. The team beat the opponent on its schedule, which is all anyone could ask it to do.

Yeah, but it was just the Jets — the team that went 2-14 last year and was starting a rookie quarterback and showed it might not be much better this season as the team struggled on offense and defense.

The Sam Darnold experiment got off to a positive start as the former Jets top draft pick was able to beat his former team in Week 1.

Yeah, but there are nits to pick in his performance. He was outstanding in the first half, completing 17 of 22 passes for 234 yards and a score. The Jets coaching staff seemed to find a solution to that in the second half, which included pressuring him. After not being sacked at all in the first 30 minutes, Darnold was pressured frequently, went down once after halftime and struggled to a 7-for-13, 45-yard second half.

One reason he was able to stay upright early in the game is a game plan that reduced his risk. Darnold got rid of the ball quickly, often dumping it off. Of his 21 first-half targets, 11 went to running back Christian McCaffrey or tight ends. He completed all 11. He threw at receivers just 10 times, completing seven. For the game, he was 14 of 16 on dump-offs, 10 of 17 on downfield throws.

McCaffrey was one of the few positives for the team that didn’t come with a “yeah, but” attached. He showed he was back to his pre-injury level of 2019 and earlier, posting his fifth career game with 80 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards.

The Panthers’ defense was also a bright spot, sacking Jets rookie Zach Wilson six times and intercepting him once. He was hit 10 times and pressured in 14 of 43 drop-back attempts, showing that much of Darnold’s struggles in New York may have been due to his shoddy protection.

Yeah, but Wilson also benefited from halftime adjustments. After completing just 6 of 16 passes for 84 yards in his first NFL half, he was 14 of 21 for 174 and two touchdowns as the Jets outscored the Panthers 14-3 in the second half.

So which half do we trust? The first, where Carolina outgained the Jets 272-82? Or the second, where the Jets outgained the Panthers 170-109?

This week’s game should give a better indication of whether the bright-siders or the “yeah, butters” are on the right track. After being a thorn in the NFC South’s side for years, the New Orleans Saints were supposed to be on the downward slope after losing Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and a host of other contributors in the offseason.

The Saints showed they weren’t ready to take a step back, however. Despite having their game-planning efforts turned upside down due to a hurricane striking the city, New Orleans dominated the Green Bay Packers in a 35-3 season-opening blowout that virtually no one saw coming.

While the Saints will be a test for the Panthers, New Orleans has plenty of adversity heading into the Week 2 matchup.

Reportedly, five Saints assistants have tested positive for COVID, as did a player currently on injured reserve. As of early game week, no players on the active roster had tested positive, but if the outbreak spreads, the team could be shorthanded at Bank of America Stadium and, worst case, could be the first test case for the NFL’s strict policy regarding forfeiting games.

New Orleans also had some old-school adversity following the Week 1 win — injuries to key contributors. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a three-time Pro Bowl player, reportedly had surgery on Tuesday to repair a chipped bone in his thumb. He played through the injury on Sunday, returning to the field with a makeshift cast on his arm, but he’ll now likely miss some time recovering from the procedure. He’s officially listed as “week-to-week.”

Defensive end Marcus Davenport suffered a pectoral strain in the game. While the MRI showed that it wasn’t torn, he’s still expected to “miss some time.”

On offense, center Erik McCoy left the game with a calf strain. The team was working out free agent centers early in the week, so it appears he’s likely to miss Sunday’s game in Charlotte.

The Saints are also still looking to add receivers until Thomas can return — around Week 6. The team reportedly signed former Saint Kenny Stills to the practice squad on Tuesday.

So a wounded but still dangerous New Orleans team will come to Charlotte this weekend. Both teams will be looking to get off to a surprising 2-0 start. Both teams have plenty of “yeah, buts” to go around. For the team that loses, those shouts will only get louder.