By Michael Downes, Noah Goad and John Dolan
Don’t look now, but the Detroit Lions are 3-1, sitting pretty atop the NFC North alongside the Green Bay Packers. Coming off a sloppy win against the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit will be hosting the 3-1 Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. EST on FOX.
Carolina is coming off an impressive 33-30 win over the New England Patriots. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton seemed to have found his stride, throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Take that with a grain of salt though. The Patriots defense has looked like swiss cheese all season and this Lions defense is no joke.
Detroit’s stout defense starts upfront. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson have been eating blocks and making it nearly impossible for teams to run the ball, giving up just over 86 yards per game (seventh in the NFL).
The Panthers are in the top half of the NFL rushing-wise, averaging 116.2 yards per game, but only have two rushing touchdowns. While many Carolina fans felt rookie running back Christian McCaffrey was going to be the workhorse, it’s actually been Jonathan Stewart.
Stewart heads into Sunday with 230 yards rushing, while McCaffrey, Carolina’s third leading rusher, is lagging behind with 89 yards (2.9 YPC). Who’s between them? Newton, with one whole yard more than the rookie. The six-year vet also has both of Carolina’s rushing touchdowns.
Newton’s legs pose a huge problem for Detroit. Defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Zettel need to play disciplined ball and keep contain. If Newton is able to extend plays, he will torch this defense, especially with his receivers.
Based on the numbers, wideouts Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess haven’t been outstanding, but don’t sleep on them.
Funchess had a breakout game against the Patriots, pulling in seven balls for 70 yards and hitting paydirt twice.
Benjamin, who’s battling a knee injury, is Carolina’s No. 1 receiver on the depth chart, but No. 3 production-wise. His 13 catches and 216 yards is behind both Funchess and McCaffrey for the season.
While he hasn’t had a big impact on the run game, McCaffrey is Newton’s favorite target. His 22 receptions and 206 receiving yards ranksecond and fourth respectively amongst running backs.
Detroit linebackers have their hands full trying to contain both Newton and McCaffery, but there is no reason to doubt them.
Even without rookie Jarrad Davis, who should be returning this week, the linebacking corps has looked outstanding. Tahir Whitehead has looked phenomenal in both the run game and dropping in coverage, ranking as the sixth-best linebacker in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
Having players like safety Glover Quin and cornerback Darius Slay behind them has given the linebackers confidence to take risks.
Slay will be matched up with Benjamin for the majority of the game and the advantage goes to Slay. He’s faced a lot of big-name receivers this year and kept them all in check.
With the loss of Greg Olsen, the Panthers don’t have a threat at tight end, giving Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin the ability to use Quin in many different, creative ways. Look for Quin to be all over the field: in coverage, stacked in the box and blitzing at a much higher rate.
There’s plenty of hype around Detroit’s defense this season, but there is more for Carolina’s – led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, outside linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Julius Peppers.
The Panther’s defense stems from its ability to pressure the quarterback. The 37-year-old Peppers seems to have found the fountain of youth, racking up 4.5 sacks (fifth most) this season. Five other Panthers have found their way to the quarterback and the team has 11 sacks on the year.
This is terrible news for Matthew Stafford, who was running for his life against the Minnesota Vikings. This defensive front seven is better than Minnesota’s, and much more relentless.
Look for a lot of two tight end sets with Eric Ebron and Darren Fells to help out tackles Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner. Fells is primarily a blocker anyway, but both will be chipping whoever is coming off the edges for Carolina just to slow them up a half step.
With some extra time, Stafford will be able to get balls downfield. There is no reason for the Lions wideouts to struggle against these weak Carolina defensive backs.
Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were both quiet last week, but they will bounce back in a big way. If Stafford is smart he will be looking Tate’s way all game; there isn’t a player on the Panthers roster that can contain him.
Coming off a 94 yard performance, the running game will go back into hiding this week. There is no chance that a defense led by Kuechly will allow Ameer Abdullah rush for close to 100 yards. As for Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner, they’ll keep their trend of being non-existent alive.
Keys to the game
The outcome of this game relies heavily on Wagner and Robinson. The whole offensive line as a unit seems to be on a slight incline, but they need to play the best games of their careers. This Carolina defense good and will be blitzing from all different areas. If the tackles can’t stand stall and give Stafford time, they will lose.
Take Benjamin out of the equation. This is something that Slay should be able to do. Without Benjamin, Carolina will have no choice but to lean on Funchess and McCaffrey.
Get to Newton and don’t allow him to use his legs. The Lions have done a great job of this all season. They have put the pressure on the quarterback and they end up forcing passes which leads to takeaways.
This is going to be a tight one. Just like last week it’s a battle of two slightly above average offenses going against two outstanding defenses. History shows that Stafford will struggle against a team above .500, but I believe in change. I think Detroit does just enough and manages to squeak out a win with a last second 48-yard field goal from Prater.
Lions 27, Panthers 24
This is going to be a very close, low-scoring game. Both defenses are tied for the fourth-fewest points allowed per game at 17.5. The Lions are at home and have the better offense. I have the Lions edging out the Panthers.
Lions 24, Panthers 17
For the first time since 2011, Newton’s rookie year, the Carolina Panthers will visit Ford Field this Sunday. This battle features two overachieving defenses (both tied for 6 th in points against thus far), and two franchise quarterbacks: Stafford and Newton.
Vegas considers this game a toss-up, with the Lions being favored by a lone point at home, but this game won’t be as close as people think. Carolina inflated both their record and defensive statistics by opening up the season against the lowly San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. Plus, they were a missed field goal away from blowing a 14-point lead late in the 4th quarter last week in New England.
The key to this game will be the Lions run defense, which looks to be in much better shape this week with stud rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis set to return from injury. Look for the Lions defense to shut down overhyped first-round pick McCaffrey and the rest of the Carolina run game.
Lions 24, Panthers 14