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Texans' Fourth-Down Stop Keeps Hope Alive

Carolina was driving for an apparent 14-0 lead when Houston's defense stiffened inside its 10-yard-line

The Houston Texans bent early, but they didn't break.

In a game the Carolina Panthers mostly dominated on both sides of the ball, the Texans' defense produced a key stop inside its own 10-yard line to keep the game competitive in the second quarter.

Already up 7-0, the Panthers drove to a first down at Houston's 14. Given Houston's inept offense and conservative game plan behind rookie quarterback Davis Mills, another touchdown would levy an ominous tone on the rest of the game.

READ MORE: Panthers' Star RB McCaffrey Leaves With Hamstring Injury

A couple plays later, however, Panthers' star do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey pulled a hamstring and left the game. After a 12-yard completion, Carolina faced fourth-and-1 at Houston's 5-yard line.

Despite McCaffrey in the medical tent (he was ruled out for the game), Panthers' head coach Matt Ruhle decided to go for the early knockout blow. But the hand-off to backup running back Chuba Hubbard behind left guard was immediately stymied by Houston's defense. Linebacker Christian Kirksey and tackle Ross Blacklock made the initial contact, and when help arrived from cornerback Eric Murray the play was stuffed for no gain.

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The play was all the Texans had to celebrate in the first half until the final two minutes. After a third-down sack of Panthers' quarterback Sam Darnold by Texans' defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the offense abruptly sprang to life with a 64-yard drive climaxing in Mills' 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Anthony Miller. 

At one point the Panthers had 11 first downs to the Texans' running only 11 plays. While Mills completed four of his first five passes and didn't make any glaring mistakes, his completions were all short and quick to combat Carolina's fierce pass rush.

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Houston curiously went away from the only play that worked early - handing off to running back Mark Ingram. While the veteran gained 16 yards, he only carried three times. By contract, Phillip Lindsay carried five times for only one yard.

The ultra-conservative game plan and paltry results began to make Texans' fans restless. Boos rained down from NRG Stadium when Houston attacked a third-and-long with a modest hand-off to Lindsay.

That all changed on Houston's last first-half drive when Mills hit receiver Brandin Cooks with a 30-yard pass that ignited the previously stagnant offense.