Panthers vs. Lions: The 3-1 Detroit Lions play the 3-1 Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Ford Field in a battle of first-place teams. Their efficiency metrics have their success as basically even through the first quarter of the season, yet the game remains pivotal for positioning in the NFC.
Here are the players to watch from both sides in this matchup, plus a prediction:
Panthers vs. Lions: Offensive player to watch: QB Matthew Stafford
It’s strange to see Matthew Stafford be as off as he has the past two games and to realize the Lions are six inches or a more logical rule from being 2-0. The Lions quarterback hasn’t thrown an interception in that span, though he’s tempted fate on a few different occasions. Instead, his timing has just been off and he’s had trouble locating receivers early in the down. His team managed to win a road game last week despite the fact that he couldn’t find the end zone.
Carolina’s cornerbacks are an average tandem and its safeties are banged-up with veteran ball-hawker Kurt Coleman set to miss this game. Tom Brady threw for 308 yards and two scores on this unit last week, though that’s Tom Brady. Stafford will have to be up to his normal standard with big-bodied rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay to miss this one with a hamstring injury.
Panthers vs. Lions: Defensive player to watch: LB Tahir Whitehead
The Lions will be without Paul Worrilow on Sunday, and they’re waiting to see if they’ll get first-round rookie Jarrad Davis back for the first time in three games. If he’s not out there, it places a huge responsibility onto the veteran of the group, Tahir Whitehead. He’s played about as well as could be expected since he reverted back to an outside linebacker role, and he’ll be challenged Sunday against a run-first Panthers team that thrives on sending power runners like Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart into the teeth of the defense.
Whitehead won’t have big-play tight end Greg Olsen to worry about in coverage, but he will have his hands full with the bevy of options the Panthers throw at linebackers every game.
Panthers vs. Lions: Rookie to watch: LB Jarrad Davis
Will he play, or won’t he? It’s the question for a third straight week after Detroit’s first-round middle linebacker has been held out of the last two games, in which stud running backs were able to rip off second-level runs on the regular. Davis is out of the concussion protocol now but has continued to be limited with a neck injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday. His availability against the powerful and run-centric Panthers will decide a lot about how well Detroit can dictate the pace of this game.
Panthers vs. Lions: Opponent to fear: LB Luke Kuechly
The Panthers have had their own ups and downs on offense this season, but one element they bring to every game is their do-it-all linebacker. Luke Kuechly covers as much ground as any linebacker in the NFL, dropping from a read-first linebacker spot to a deep free safety role on the regular. He’s skilled at knifing through vacancies in an offensive line for tackles for loss, as the Lions offer on some of their outside zone runs; and he’s in general excellent at limiting plays to the sideline. Ameer Abdullah is coming off his best rushing game of the season against Minnesota, when he nearly broke the century mark on 4.7 yards per carry. His ability to make defenders miss in a little bit of space will be tested by one of the surest tacklers and best free-ranging linebackers in the NFL.
Panthers vs. Lions X-Factor: WR TJ Jones
With two top-10 defenses and two offenses ranked in the 20s in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, this game could be more defensive than the typical Ford Field matchup tends to be. If it is, big plays on third down could become the difference. In Golladay’s absence, TJ Jones has offered a few of those. The past two weeks, Detroit’s No. 3 wide receiver has caught five of eight targets for 98 yards to go along with a two-point conversion catch. Carolina’s front seven is stacked enough to where someone in the receiving corps will be counted on to make a play, and the man replacing the 6-foot-4-inch receiver would make a big difference if he’s able to convert a few.
Panthers vs. Lions Picks: Panthers 23, Lions 21
This is the toughest Lions game yet to predict because, as I wrote this week, the teams have been identically good through the first four games. I expect both teams to crawl down the field and to see drives stall against good defenses, but I think in the end, the Panthers will find ways to expose the issues Detroit has at linebackers. From Cam Newton’s and Jonathan Stewart’s violent running to Christian McCaffrey’s tricky routes, that should provide enough boost in a tight game.