Bryce Young and the Carolina Panthers finally won a game Sunday, edging the Houston Texans, 15-13, after the rookie quarterback engineered a length-of-the-field late drive for a walk-off, 23-yard field goal by Eddy Piñeiro.
Young won the ballyhooed matchup in Charlotte between the first and second overall picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, as Houston (3-4) and fellow rookie quarterback CJ Stroud could only manage one touchdown against Carolina’s defense.
The Panthers (1-6) only scored one touchdown, too, but got three field goals from Piñeiro, who had an active day that also included a missed extra point and having to line up for the final, game-winning kick three different times as Houston kept purposely drawing penalties.
With their final-second win, the Panthers avoided tying their worst start in history — they began 0-7 in 1998. And this win undoubtedly took some of the pressure off Young, who had watched Stroud win three of his first six games in Houston and post better stats, too. Panthers fans wondering if Carolina took the wrong QB were silenced after this one — at least for a week.
The Panthers’ final drive was a thing of ugly beauty. Trailing 13-12, Carolina began at its own 9-yard line with 6:17 to go and then methodically moved the ball down the field, getting into jams and then getting out of them with one key first down after another. The biggest came on a fourth-and-2 completion from Young to his favorite target, Adam Thielen, that went for three tough yards to the Houston 44.
“A tough, contested catch with the game on the line,” said Young, whom the Panthers traded away a midsized fortune to acquire with the No. 1 overall draft pick in April. “Not surprising for Adam.”
Carolina hadn’t been able to run the ball all day. But shortly after that, Young handed the ball to Chuba Hubbard three times in a row and he got 11 yards, allowing the Panthers to bleed the clock down to nearly zero before the field goal.
That, as guard Austin Corbett said, was Carolina’s offensive line saying to Houston: “I’m going to be a bigger man than you in this moment.”
Houston would never get the ball back again in that final 6:17, despite the Texans having three timeouts and the two-minute warning to work with, as the Panthers advanced the ball into the Texans’ red zone and then set up Piñeiro for what ultimately turned out to be a 23-yard kick with 0:03 left that had its own little series of dramas.
On a gloriously sunny October afternoon, the kick went through as time expired (after Houston went offside and roughed the kicker on the first attempt, then got called for unsportsmanlike conduct, then also apparently jumped offside on the third attempt), giving Young his first career win and the first victory for head coach Frank Reich as the Panthers.
Punter Johnny Hekker, who is also the holder for field goals, gave Piñeiro a piggyback ride to midfield as the game ended and “Sweet Caroline” blared over the loudspeakers.
“Great win,” Reich said. “Obviously a long time coming. ... Really proud of how we played as a team. ... This is one. We’ve got a long way to go. This is just the beginning.”
The Panthers’ locker room was jumping with music afterward. Carolina was the last team in the NFL without a win, and the victory also let Carolina avoid going 0-for-October after already going for 0-for-September.
Young, Piñeiro and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown — calling plays for the first time in a regular-season game after Reich gave over those duties in the bye week — all received game balls afterward.
Young threw for 235 yards compared to Stroud’s 140 yards, completing passes of 40 and 31 yards and not turning the ball over.
“When we needed him the most,” Reich said of Young, “he made the biggest plays.”
A goodbye hug for Stroud and Young, who spoke with each other for at least 10 straight minutes after the game. The two are longtime friends. pic.twitter.com/LjHZAHs3iA
— Scott Fowler (@scott_fowler) October 29, 2023
Young also took a lot more hits than Stroud did, getting sacked a career-high six times. Young’s only touchdown came on a 1-yard pass to Tommy Tremble, while the Texans’ TD came on a one-yard quarterback sneak by Stroud. Young took pains afterward to say the game wasn’t about him beating Stroud, but about the Panthers beating the Texans.
“CJ is my dog, my brother,” Young said. “Have a ton of love and respect for him. It’s not a one-on-one game out there. I’m super, super happy for this team, (and) to be a part of this team.”
Stroud wasn’t able to puncture the Panthers’ defense for much yardage or many points at all, even though Carolina had allowed 42 points in back-to-back games against Miami and Detroit.
“You can point the finger everywhere, but me personally, I point the thumb,” Stroud said. “I’m not saying that I’m playing terrible, but I’m not making the plays I want to make.”
“We had him where we wanted him,” Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson said of Stroud. “He’s a great player. He’s a really smart player. We just had to go out there and do our job and that’s what we did.”
After the game and the Panthers’ celebration — which was as jubilant as you might expect for a team that hadn’t won a game in nearly two months — Young and Stroud met outside their teams’ locker rooms and spoke for at least 10 minutes. The two are good friends and have known each other since middle school. Then they hugged and said goodbye, knowing that this was just the first NFL battle of two players who will always be linked.
“We’re just playing football,” said Stroud, who although five inches taller than Young had more passes batted down than Young did Sunday. “We’re friends off the field, and that’s a blessing, but I come to play hard and want to win. Happy for him in his first win. I think that’s big for him. Hopefully he catches some momentum. I’m a Texan. So my focus is there.”