The Carolina Panthers opened this season with a perfect 3-0 record, led by resurgent quarterback Sam Darnold and star running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey went down against the Houston Texans on September 23, and the entire offense subsequently fell off a cliff. The Panthers lost their next three contests before beating the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, 19-13.

McCaffrey’s return this Sunday would be more than welcome, especially against the stout New England Patriots defense. The Panthers now have designated McCaffrey to return from injured reserve, meaning he’s practicing this week ahead of the Week 9 game against the Patriots. The Panthers have been incredibly patient with McCaffrey’s recovery, not wanting to potentially lose him for the season.

Head Coach Matt Rhule didn’t push the idea of McCaffrey coming back this week. “Hopefully we get Christian back soon,” Rhule said earlier this week. “If it’s not this week, hopefully next week.”

McCaffrey is not back on the active roster just yet. Instead, designating McCaffrey to return from IR starts his 21-day clock to return to the active roster. More importantly, it represents him coming one step closer to returning to the field. Rhule said that McCaffrey’s timetable for return was contingent on how he looked in practice — if he practiced. “Yeah, he’ll practice Wednesday, I’m hoping,” Rhule said. “If he practices on Wednesday and he does well, we’ll see how he is Thursday and ramp him up towards the game. He hasn’t practiced yet. So there’s always a return to play component to it.”

McCaffrey coming back this week would be massive. Darnold was limited at practice today, and has historically struggled against Belichick-led defenses. Playing hurt against an elite defense is seemingly a recipe for disaster, but things could change massively with CMC on the field. If Darnold can’t go this week, and the quarterback is PJ Walker, McCaffrey and a strong running game would make his life so much easier. Facing the Patriots in only his second career start would present a significant challenge.

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