After a couple of lean years, the Detroit Lions have assembled a legitimate playoff contender centered around quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Carolina Panthers are in the process of attempting to construct one of their own to surround Cam Newton.
The two recent No. 1 overall draft picks will be striving to lead their teams back from disappointing one-sided losses when Newton's Panthers pay a visit to Ford Field to take on the suddenly-slumping Lions this Sunday.
Detroit has actually been rebuilding long before it took Stafford with the top overall selection of the 2009 NFL draft, having suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons prior to making the then-University of Georgia standout its franchise face. Stafford's first two years in the league were trying times as well, with the strong-armed 23-year-old enduring a slew of injuries and the Lions compiling a lackluster 8-24 record over that span, but 2011 has thus far been a more enjoyable and successful campaign for both he and his team.
The Lions are in a bit of a rough patch at the moment, however, having lost three of four games since a soaring 5-0 start that made the longtime also-rans the talk of the league. The low point took place this past Sunday in Chicago, where Detroit put forth by far its sloppiest showing of the season in a 37-16 blitzing at the hands of the NFC North-rival Bears.
Detroit turned the ball over a whopping six times against Chicago, with Stafford throwing four interceptions and having two brought back for touchdowns, and the uncomposed Lions also allowed an 82-yard punt return score to the always-dangerous Devin Hester in addition to being whistled for three personal foul penalties in a forgettable afternoon.
The Lions entered the contest having committed just seven giveaways through their first eight games and Stafford had been intercepted only four times total over that span. The young triggerman also completed an off-target 33 of a club- record 63 pass attempts while battling both the treacherous winds of Soldier Field and a fractured right index finger.
"You're always concerned, but I know that a guy like Matt Stafford is going to bounce back because of the way he played in the eight other games," Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz said afterward.
Carolina also seeks a rebound from a dreadful display a week ago, when the still-developing Panthers were routed at home by the Tennessee Titans. A troublesome defense allowed 172 rushing yards to the NFL's bottom-ranked ground attack in the 30-3 undressing, while Newton had one of the least productive days of his brief and so-far spectacular pro career.
The loss dropped Carolina to 2-7 in head coach Ron Rivera's debut season and was the team's fifth defeat in its last six games, and was also easily the most uncompetitive outing for a Panthers squad that had gone toe-to-toe with such marquee opponents as Green Bay, Chicago and New Orleans earlier in the year.
"I would have taken any of those eight games in the first half of the season opposed to what I saw [last week]," Rivera said. "It's disappointing. Taking that step back hurt, because we had made such progress."
Carolina has indeed made strides under Rivera's watch, having already matched its entire victory total of an awful 2-14 season in 2010 that enabled the Panthers to nab the dazzling Newton with the first overall choice of this past April's draft.
Winning on the road has still remained an issue, however. The Panthers are 0-3 in enemy venues this season and have lost 11 straight as the visitor since a 41-9 throttling of the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 2009.
Detroit begins this week's play tied with the Bears for the two Wild Card berths in the NFC, with Dallas and Atlanta one game back of both teams in the race.
The Panthers and Lions have opposed one another five times previously, with Carolina winning the last four meetings after dropping a 24-9 decision to Detroit in Charlotte on Oct. 24, 1999. The Panthers have visited Ford Field just once in their history, coming through in a 21-20 squeaker in 2005, and posted a 31-22 home victory when these teams last squared off back in 2008.
Both Rivera and Schwartz will be facing each other, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Last in the NFL in virtually every offensive category last season, the Panthers have vaulted to sixth overall in total yards (400.0 ypg) in 2011 thanks to the presence of the dynamic Newton (2605 passing yards, 11 TD, 10 INT) at quarterback and a rebirth from veteran wideout Steve Smith (51 receptions, 951 yards, 4 TD), who's second in the league in receiving yards and is averaging nearly 19 yards per catch as the team's top playmaker. Newton has done some marvelous things as well during a banner first year that's seen the reigning Heisman Trophy recipient throw for 290 yards or more four times and accounted for 18 of Carolina's 21 offensive touchdowns (11 passing, 7 rushing), though he struggled in going 23-of-40 for 212 yards with an interception while taking five sacks against the Titans to spark fears about possibly hitting the dreaded rookie wall. Though Smith is unquestionably the No. 1 option in the passing game, Newton also has two established tight ends to work with in veterans Greg Olsen (34 receptions, 4 TD) and Jeremy Shockey (24 receptions, 1 TD), while wide receiver Legedu Naanee (30 receptions) posted season highs of eight catches and 75 yards in last week's loss. The Panthers also sport two quality running backs in DeAngelo Williams (398 rushing yards, 1 TD, 10 receptions) and Jonathan Stewart (350 rushing yards, 2 TD, 27 receptions), and Newton brings an added dimension with his superb scrambling skills. The former Auburn star's 374 rushing yards trails only Michael Vick for most by a quarterback this season.
Newton figures to get another challenge this week from a Detroit defense that's allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league (184.0 ypg) and surrendered just nine touchdowns through the air this season, and it's been one of the best in the business at pressuring the quarterback as well. Led by 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (27 tackles, 3 sacks) at tackle and end Cliff Avril (18 tackles, 6 sacks), the Lions have accumulated 26 sacks to date and have also been adept at causing turnovers, amassing 19 takeaways through the first nine games. Avril's four forced fumbles are tied for tops in the NFL, while cornerback Chris Houston (42 tackles, 10 PD) has four interceptions and returned two for touchdowns as the headliner of a strong secondary. Detroit hasn't been as proficient at stopping the run, having permitted an average of 134.4 rushing yards per game (27th overall) and a subpar 4.9 yards per carry, but did hold Chicago factor back Matt Forte to a modest 64 yards on 18 attempts last week and gave up a season-low 216 yards in defeat.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Though Detroit comes in as the NFL's fourth-highest scoring team (28.0 ppg), injuries to both Stafford (2508 passing yards, 20 TD, 8 INT) and speedy running back Jahvid Best have reduced the offense's effectiveness as of late. Stafford's accuracy had been waning even before his sustained his broken finger, with the third-year pro having hit on only 55.4 percent of his throws over the last four games, and the Lions were forced to rely way too much on airing it out against the Bears because of a ground game rendered dormant due to Best's continued unavailability caused by a concussion in Week 6. Detroit is just 29th in the league in run attempts and averages a mere 93.6 rushing yards per game (27th overall). Best will sit out Sunday's tilt as well, leaving the duties once again in the hands of unspectacular veteran Maurice Morris (172 rushing yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions) and recent addition Kevin Smith, but superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson (54 receptions, 885 yards, 11 TD) will play after passing a concussion test made mandatory after he left the Chicago game upon taking a shot to the head. The 2010 All-Pro had a string of four consecutive 100-yard efforts end against the Bears, but still leads the NFL in touchdown catches as Stafford's clear-cut favorite target. Like Carolina, the Lions get very good production from their tight ends, with 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew (46 receptions, 2 TD) on pace for an 82-catch season and Tony Scheffler (12 receptions, 4 TD) having hauled in a Stafford touchdown strike in back-to-back games.
The Lions should have a chance to increase their usual rushing output on Sunday, as the Panthers have been among the league's most inept teams at preventing opponents from running at will. Carolina is yielding a problematic 137.6 yards per game on the ground (28th overall) this season and was burned for 130 yards by Tennessee's previously-struggling Chris Johnson last Sunday, and have held foes under 100 rushing yards just twice in 2011. Leading tackler James Anderson (77 tackles, 1 sack) is the only projected starter remaining from a linebacker corps that's been ravaged by injuries, while tackles Terrell McClain (13 tackles, 1 sack) and Sione Fua have undergone a trial-by-fire experience as rookie starters along the interior. Carolina also hasn't been great against the pass, with enemy quarterbacks averaging 8.3 yards per attempt on the year and the team having snared just five interceptions, but cornerback Chris Gamble (17 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) is a sound cover man who will likely be assigned to shadow Johnson throughout Sunday's contest. The Panthers also possess an elite pass rusher in end Charles Johnson (28 tackles, 7 sacks), who's racked up 15 sacks over a 16-game span dating back to last season.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Stafford's finger. Though Schwartz blamed the adverse weather conditions for his quarterback's poor performance from last week, it was evident that Stafford's injury contributed to his rough day. It's something the hard-nosed youngster's going to have to manage over the course of an important stretch run, and another multi-interception outing would greatly enhance the Panthers' chances of pulling off the upset on Sunday.
Run the football. This is an area in which Carolina seems to have an advantage it can exploit, as the Lions haven't been very good in run defense and the trio of Williams, Stewart and Newton are all capable of consistently moving the chains with their legs. On the Detroit side, having Stafford throw 63 times with a broken finger isn't exactly the best method for success, and better offensive balance would surely make the Lions that much tougher for a Panthers team with a long list of defensive issues to stop.
Turnovers. The Lions didn't give themselves much of a chance with their incredibly generous ways last week, but they're a tough team to beat when they take care of the ball. Detroit didn't have more than one giveaway in a game prior to the Chicago loss, and went 6-2 over that stretch. Likewise, Carolina hasn't had a turnover in either of its two 2011 victories, and it'll need Newton to play like a veteran against an opponent that's shown a knack for forcing mistakes out of its challengers.
If both Stafford and Best were completely healthy, the Lions probably wouldn't have much of a problem handling a young and undermanned Carolina team that hasn't won on the road in 23 months. They're not, however, and that should level the playing field somewhat. Detroit still shouldn't encounter a whole lot of difficulty moving the ball on a ravaged Panthers defense, and Carolina's odds of winning dwindle if it's forced to come from behind on a Lions stop unit that excels at harassing the quarterback and is sound in coverage. Look for Detroit to not perform sharp enough to prevent the Panthers from hanging around, but still come up with enough plays to keep its playoff hopes on solid footing.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 27, Panthers 20