The Carolina Panthers became the NFL’s first 3-0 team of this season Thursday night in Houston. They can only hope that their chances to be a legitimate playoff contender didn’t begin to unravel along the way.

Quarterback Sam Darnold ran for two touchdowns and threw for 304 yards. The rugged Carolina defense dominated another opponent. But the Panthers’ most important player, standout tailback Christian McCaffrey, exited the 24-9 triumph over the Texans with a strained hamstring and rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn suffered a broken foot.

“We weren’t told about Christian’s injury,” Darnold said. “I mean, I assumed, just because he wasn’t there. But ... we just had to put our head down and play a lot better. I thought we did a better job in that second half of creating momentum and having a good tempo about us.”

It is the latest injury-related setback for McCaffrey. The running back, in his fifth NFL season, is one of the league’s brightest and most versatile stars when healthy. He is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. He was an all-pro selection in the 2019 season, when he joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk in becoming the third NFL player ever to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension.

But keeping him healthy and on the field has been the issue lately. He played all 16 games in each of his first three NFL seasons. But he missed 13 games last season because of ankle, shoulder and quadriceps injuries.

McCaffrey had seven carries for 31 yards and two catches for nine yards before leaving Thursday’s game in the second quarter. He headed to the medical tent on the Panthers’ sideline, then later walked to the locker room.

“I don’t even think most of our guys knew what was going on with Christian,” Coach Matt Rhule said in his postgame news conference. “We were so in the moment. Everyone is kind of doing their job.”

But it’s clear how valuable McCaffrey is to the Carolina offense.

“He’s a special player,” Darnold said in his postgame news conference. “I don’t know if there’s any way to describe him. He’s someone who you can align anywhere. I think the greatest way to see how great a player is, is by how a defense has to game-plan for them. When Christian is out there, you can kind of see when he starts to line up in different ways that defenses have certain checks for him when he’s out there. That’s a sign of a really good player.”

Darold, asked about McCaffrey’s postgame mood, said succinctly: “He’s sad.”

Asked about what he told McCaffrey, Darnold said: “Just that I’m thinking of him and to take his time. We’ll be all right without him. Obviously we want him back. But I want him to take his time right now and make sure he’s good for the end of the season.”

Horn was taken from the field on a cart. Rhule said the rookie suffered broken bones in his foot.

“We love those guys,” Rhule said. “We’re going to help them get better.”

The Panthers are 3-0 for the first time since the 2015 season, when they went 15-1 during the regular season and reached the Super Bowl. They added Darnold in the offseason as a reclamation project from the New York Jets and are seeking a turnaround after going 5-11 last season in Rhule’s rookie year as an NFL head coach.

“We’re resilient,” Darnold said Thursday.

They’re also very good on defense. The Panthers began the night ranked first in the NFL in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense, sacks and quarterback hits. The Texans reached the end zone Thursday only on a second-quarter touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Davis Mills to wide receiver Anthony Miller. Mills, making his first NFL start in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor, completed 19 of 28 passes for 168 yards.

The Panthers’ three opponents—the Jets, New Orleans Saints and Texans—have combined for 573 yards of total offense. According to ESPN, that’s the fewest yards allowed by any NFL team in a 3-0 start to a season since the Reggie White-led 1992 Philadelphia Eagles.

The McCaffrey-less offense did its part Thursday for Carolina. Darnold completed 23 of 34 passes. Rookie tight end Tommy Tremble provided a touchdown run. Wide receiver D.J. Moore, who limped off the field at one point but returned to the game, had eight catches for 126 yards.

“We’re starting to find our identity as an offense,” Darnold said. “... That’s my job, is to get us in the right play and make sure that we’re kind of hitting on all cylinders and that the offense is moving in the right direction.”