Two weeks into the 2021 season, the Carolina Panthers are showing some teeth.
Carolina gets a chance to make even more noise Thursday night when the Panthers visit the Houston Texans in the only scheduled primetime game of the season for either team.
"The energy is great in the locker room," Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey said. "I also think we have a very mature team. ... Just because you're 2-0, you still got 15 more games left. Continue to get better, that's really what it's all about."
The Texans are 1-1 and quarterback changes are afoot again due to Tyrod Taylor's hamstring injury. Rookie Davis Mills gets the call with Carolina's potent pass rush a peak concern.
The Panthers (2-0) have topped the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. A dominant defense has set the tone for the Panthers, but quarterback Sam Darnold and McCaffrey have been critical to their fast start.
"We have a lot of things to do to improve," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said, noting that defensive packages will be adjusted in dealing with the Texans.
Carolina leads the NFL with 10 sacks and now runs into an inexperienced Houston quarterback.
Taylor became the starter as franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson determined he no longer wants to be a part of the team. Watson will be inactive for the third game in a row as Houston weighs trade offers and remains connected to an ongoing investigation into more than 20 legal claims against Watson for sexual assault or misconduct.
Mills was tagged in last Sunday at Cleveland when Taylor was injured. First-year head coach David Culley came away impressed.
"We know he's always one of those guys that when a bad thing happens, he comes back, he makes a play," Culley said.
Mills played most of the second half in Week 2. Jeff Driskel was activated from the practice squad Thursday and slides into the backup quarterback spot.
It will help any young quarterback to have a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle leading protection, and Laremy Tunsil gives Houston a sound blocker against Carolina's edge rushers.
Even with the quick turnaround on the schedule, Mills should have more practice opportunities in a first-string role for the Carolina game.
"I'm excited to see what he does as time goes on," Houston running back Phillip Lindsay said.
Already what has been evident to Mills' teammates is a degree of toughness that's appreciated.
"One of the things you want to show is toughness," Texans receiver Brandin Cooks said. "You know he took a couple to the face and bounced right back up. And when you see that from a rookie, you got a lot of respect for him."
Houston hopes for another fast start, getting on the board early in each of the first two games. The Panthers haven't allowed a point in the first half this season.
For Carolina's offense, a real test could come with the durability of McCaffrey. He played in only three games last season because of injuries, yet he has been plenty busy this month.
McCaffrey, who had 30 touches in the first game and 29 more in Week 2, said he should be fine after leaving Sunday's game for a stretch with what was described as cramping.
"I've just got to do a better job of taking care of it during the week," McCaffrey said Monday.
Culley said he doesn't want too much pressure on his team in this prime-time matchup.
"I think you are going to see the same football team that you have seen for the first two games," he said. "Hopefully we just eliminate the two turnovers. And if we eliminate those turnovers, then it's a completely different Texan football team."
Texans defensive back Terrance Mitchell began the week in the concussion protocol. Carolina left guard Pat Elflein is likely out with a hamstring ailment.
Kicker Joey Slye, who was let go by the Panthers in the preseason following an inconsistent 2020, latched on with the Texans.
He's 3-for-4 on field goals with his new team.
The Panthers lead the all-time series with Houston, 3-2.
--Field Level Media