Panthers 19, Jets 14: Insta-reaction as Sam Darnold gets the last laugh at New York

By Scott Fowler

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers looked just good enough in their first game of the 2021 season Sunday, edging the New York Jets 19-14.

It was a 3-D performance that popped, especially in the first half, as quarterback Sam Darnold, the Panthers’ D and a general sense of determination propelled Carolina to victory.

Still, the Panthers barely held on after holding a 16-0 halftime lead. They needed to make sure the Jets didn’t recover an onside kick with 1:56 left to seal the victory; the ball went out of bounds.

Some instant reaction on the game, played before an announced crowd of 70,211 on a sunny afternoon at Bank of America Stadium:

SAM DARNOLD REVENGE GAME GOES BEAUTIFULLY

I really liked what I saw from Darnold Sunday. Darnold quarterbacked the New York Jets for most of the past three seasons, going 13-25 as a starter and seeing the Jets franchise sour on him so much that they traded the 2018 No.3 overall draft pick away to the Panthers in the offseason.

Darnold joked before the season began that NFL schedule-makers had pitted the Panthers and Jets in Week 1 because it would make for good reality TV. And it did.

It also made me think that Darnold has plenty of talent to make this Panther offense hum in a way Teddy Bridgewater rarely could in 2020. The early returns were promising.

Darnold threw the ball well all afternoon, particularly to DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey. By halftime, he already had 234 passing yards, including a 57-yard TD to Robby Anderson and a 5-yard QB draw where he scored standing up. His only blemish in the first half came on a fourth-down fumble when he tried to hand the ball to McCaffrey but instead got it knocked out by the fullback.

PANTHERS’ D LINE VS ZACH WILSON

Carolina’s defensive line outmatched the Jets, which put New York rookie quarterback Zach Wilson in quite a pickle.

With Brian Burns and Haason Reddick crashing in from the ends and a variety of players coming up the middle, Wilson saw his pocket break down repeatedly. He made a few ill-advised throws, like the one Shaq Thompson (who at the last minute switched to No. 7 and had several big plays) picked off in the second quarter. But Wilson also threw some great deep balls, only to see his receivers rarely come up with contested catches.

In other words, Wilson got a good dose of what Darnold dealt with for most of the past three years. He’s got potential, but with that anemic Jets offense, he doesn’t have much help. Wilson did make a beautiful play for his first NFL TD pass in the third quarter, scrambling right, buying time and finding Corey Davis with a 22-yard strike. He then ran for the two-point conversion.

But Wilson in the fourth quarter showed a lot of hope for the Jets. He converted on a big fourth down from his own 25, then threw a 40-yard bullet to get the Jets down to the Carolina 10 with 2:51 to play to set up his second touchdown pass, with 1:56 to go. Wilson was sacked six times on the afternoon but led an impressive 93-yard scoring drive late to close the margin to 19-14.

MCCAFFREY IS MCCAFFREY

McCaffrey only played in three games in 2020, but he looked like he never missed a step in this one — the first real game he had played in 308 days. His most effective use was in the passing game, where he took one Darnold dump-off after another and turned them into first downs. McCaffrey ended up with 89 yards receiving and 98 yards rushing, with the only downside being that he didn’t score.

SANTOSO MAY BE GONE

The Panthers didn’t show any faith in new kicker Ryan Santoso early, as coach Matt Rhule passed up a 51-yard field-goal attempt and instead punted on 4th-and-6 early from the Jets 33. That was a very tentative decision by Rhule — I would have at least tried to let Santoso have a shot at it — and it didn’t pay off as Carolina then got only an 18-yard punt out of it.

Santoso then missed an extra point after Carolina’s first touchdown. If he’s on the Panthers’ roster for two weeks and plays again, Carolina owes the New York Giants a 7th-round pick. Or Carolina could just sign someone else, which I believe they will do.

ROBBY ANDERSON ROCKS HIS OLD TEAM

Robby Anderson didn’t have the volume that McCaffrey and Moore did Sunday, but his first catch of the day was a doozy. Like Darnold, Anderson also was playing his old team, and he burned them by getting open by five yards in the second quarter on a deep route. Darnold scooted left in the pocket to buy a little time and then uncorked the ball to Anderson, who caught it with room to spare and was untouched going into the end zone.

With McCaffrey back in the lineup, it looks like Anderson’s number of receptions will go down. But he remains the Panthers’ best deep threat.

RED-ZONE OFFENSE? PROBLEMATIC

Carolina moved the ball well all day, but bogged down repeatedly inside the 10. The Panthers only scored TDs once in the four possessions they moved inside the Jets 10, on Darnold’s quarterback draw. The other three possessions ended up with two field goals and a loss of the ball on downs. It is in those tight quarters that the Panthers’ iffy offensive line must improve, as does the play-calling. This game should have been over sooner than it was.


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