Thursday Night Football Prediction and Picks: Houston Texans vs. Carolina Panthers

The 2-0 Carolina Panthers travel to Houston to take on the Texans. Can Carolina cover the hefty spread? Ben Gretch gives you his pick.
Ben Gretch
Wed, September 22, 8:49 PM EDT

Thursday Night Football Prediction and Picks: Houston Texans vs. Carolina Panthers

Texans vs. Panthers Start Time, Where To Watch, and Odds

Carolina Panthers vs. Houston Texans Key Notes

The Panthers have the No. 1 defense in football by DVOA after two weeks. The Texans will start rookie third-rounder Davis Mills at quarterback.

Carolina Panthers Preview

The Panthers head to Houston on a short week, and this is one of those games that just feels too obvious. Screwy things sometimes happen on Thursday Night Football, and an eight-point road favorite is no sure bet. And yet, while I’ve taken more favorites in these early-season writeups than I would typically feel comfortable with early in the NFL season, I'm up to my nonsense once again.

I’ve been on Carolina since the preseason, when I told you to take them to finish second or third in the NFC South, both at +200 or better, as they were expected to finish last in the division. I was high enough to say you should sprinkle a bit on them to win the division or on Matt Rhule to win Coach of the Year. I wrote at that time about how strong their skill position group is, and how a good, young defense is loaded with former high draft picks and had the potential to overperform expectations.

That's not meant to be a victory lap as much as an acknowledgment of bias — you can probably imagine I’m buying in pretty hard. No, I don’t think this defense will finish No. 1 overall in Football-Outsiders’ DVOA metric at the end of the season, as they sit now. Yes, they’ve had a couple of solid matchups to start, with the Jets and Saints both at home. But their deep defensive line is pressuring opposing quarterbacks, racking up 10 sacks through two games, and their secondary looks extremely difficult to pass on.

The offense looks fantastic, too, with the team using D.J. Moore closer to the line of scrimmage in a much more effective role for his skill set than last year when he was the deep threat, and Christian McCaffrey looking like prime Wes Welker every time he runs an option route out of the backfield. McCaffrey, of course, also adds incredible rushing ability, and is a true weapon at the running back position in a league where it’s increasingly hard to make an impact from there. Having additional pieces like Robby Anderson, rookie Terrace Marshall, and even guys like Dan Arnold give them a lot of ways to beat teams. Sam Darnold maybe hasn't fixed all of his issues yet, but it's easy to see how this is a better situation for success than what he had in New York, and so far he's been perfectly fine steering this ship.

Houston Texans Preview

Maybe the Panthers won’t be this good when they face better opponents, but this week they get the Texans. Houston has looked a bit better through two weeks than expected, but I’m chalking a lot of that up to the play of Tyrod Taylor. In their Week 1 win, the Texans didn’t run the ball particularly effectively, they just ran it a lot, and Taylor consistently bailed the offense out as they converted a whopping 12 third downs. Taylor was similarly playing good football against Cleveland last week before a hamstring injury got him shut down at halftime. In stepped rookie third-round pick Davis Mills, who looked bad in the preseason with five turnovers, and went on to post the worst Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE) of any passer in Week 2. That stat measures the rate of passes he completed relative to what the difficulty of the throw would suggest, and Mills’ completion percentage was 14.7 percentage points worse than his expectation.

There’s always uncertainty with rookie passers, and we have to be aware he could surprise, but there wasn’t much in his prospect profile that made him look like anything more than a project pick as a mid-round quarterback, and being thrust into a short-week start early in his career is less than ideal. He does have a playmaker at wideout in Brandin Cooks, and Cooks has been fantastic so far this year as clearly Houston's best offensive weapon. But there’s not much else here, and Mills is not particularly mobile, while Taylor's ability to extend plays has been fantastic for his connection with Cooks early this year.

Houston’s results to date, and the lack of preseason buzz on Carolina, might be pulling this line a little closer than it has a right to be. If an established good team were going to Houston to face Mills on a short week, I’d expect at least double-digit points. I can’t say I’m at all comfortable taking a road favorite to cover eight points on the road on TNF, but I also have a hard time seeing how Carolina doesn't win this game going away.

Houston Texans vs. Carolina Panthers Pick

  • Carolina Panthers -8 (-110)

Ben Gretch
@YardsPerGretch
Ben knows his football. A fantasy football expert who was most recently seen at CBS Sports, he'll be helping bettors find value ahead in the NFL with OddsChecker.
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