The Panthers vs Lions at Detroit isn’t one that a lot of Carolina Panthers fans circled on their calendar before the year began at Ford Field (1 p.m. FOX/760 WJR).
Detroit isn’t the same sort of draw as a possible road-trip destination as San Francisco, Boston, Chicago or Tampa – the other big cities the Panthers travel to or near during their first five road games of the year. And the Lions as a team don’t sport a lot of big stars. If you can name five current Lions other than quarterback Matthew Stafford, congratulations. (I said “current” Lions – Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson don’t count.)
But this game ultimately may have a lot of significance for the Panthers. I think these teams – both 3-1 at the moment – may both wind up with identical records at the end of the regular season, too. That means they may well bump heads in terms of playoff seeds (or even whether they make the playoffs at all).
Luke Kuechly, LB: Concussions have robbed him of playing time the past two seasons but he’s still one of the league’s most complete defenders. Kuechly can read an offense like few others and seemingly is always in position to make a play. He’s tied for ninth in the league with 34 tackles to go along with three passes defensed, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Kawann Short, DT: His numbers through four games don’t stand out, however, they understate his real value and impact on Carolina’s defense. Short has been the team’s most dominant interior force the past two seasons and this year is no different. He makes life difficult for opposing offenses with his ability to clog running lanes and consistently collapse the pocket.
Christian McCaffrey, RB: The do-it-all rookie is just as much a slot receiver as he is a running back. McCaffrey leads the team with 22 receptions and ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards by a running back with 206. He’s averaging 73.8 total yards of offense (51.5 receiving, 22.3 rushing) per game and is also deployed as a punt and kickoff returner.
So a win against Detroit would provide Carolina a crucial leg up in the race to the playoffs – which Detroit made last year, while Carolina didn’t. And a loss Sunday might bite the Panthers in early January, too.
▪ It’s interesting that Detroit and Carolina have allowed exactly the same number of points per game this season (17.5 average).
▪ Linebacker Thomas Davis (rib injury) was nowhere close to 100 percent last week and was taken out of the game far more than usual. He also didn’t make much of a difference on the snaps he did play, which was rare. I assume Davis will play and be much better against Detroit – he told me he feels “a lot better.” If he’s not, though, it’s troubling.
▪ Head coach Ron Rivera said this week that Stafford – in terms of pure arm strength – actually has a stronger arm than either Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Now that is a serious rocket.
▪ The Panthers have a shot at taking a half-game lead over Atlanta (also 3-1) in the NFC South on Sunday because the Falcons have a bye. In fact it is the rare Sunday where Carolina is the only NFC South team playing – Tampa Bay lost to New England Thursday night and New Orleans also has a bye.
▪ My Panthers predictions have been bad the past two weeks, as I missed both the team’s upset loss to New Orleans and upset victory at New England. That dropped me to 2-2 on the season. This week I have a feeling it that will be Carolina in a slight upset. My pick: Carolina 30, Detroit 18.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ The Lions are tied for the league lead in total takeaways (11) and points off turnovers (47).
■ Jim Caldwell is the fastest Lions coach to reach 30 career wins since Buddy Parker (1951-54). Caldwell reached the mark in 52 games and Parker in 41 games.
■ Cam Newton is the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 50 career rushing touchdowns.
Stafford nemesis Peppers, 37, still ‘doing it all’ for Panthers
■ Through four games, the Panthers are the least penalized team in the league with 13 penalties for 118 yards.
■ Carolina’s offense leads the league in drives over six minutes with seven and third-down efficiency at 51.9 percent (27-for-52).
■ The Lions rank first in turnover differential at plus-nine (11 takeaways, two giveaways) and the Panthers are tied for 29th at minus-five (two takeaways, seven giveaways).
■ After throwing a pick-six on his first pass attempt of the season, Matthew Stafford hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 137 attempts.