Detroit Lions (7-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-9)
The coaches: Lions — Dan Campbell (15-27-1 overall, 10-20-1 with Lions); Panthers — Steve Wilks (7-18 overall, 4-5 with Panthers).
Last game: Lions beat New York Jets, 20-17; Panthers lost to Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-16.
Last meeting: Nov. 22, 2020: Panthers won, 20-0.
Lions LT Taylor Decker vs. Panthers DE Brian Burns: The Panthers are a below-average team, but they’ve found a way to keep things competitive under Wilks by playing good defense and running the football. Burns is the most talented player on Carolina’s defense, an explosive edge rusher with one of the best spin moves in the NFL. He had two sacks against the Lions in 2020 and lines up everywhere on Carolina’s defensive front. Decker gave up one of those sacks to Burns two seasons ago and should spend ample time blocking the fourth-year edge Saturday. Decker is having an excellent season. He’s given up three sacks all year and recently went four games without allowing a pressure. He was passed over for the Pro Bowl this week, though, and said Thursday he’s motivated by that snub.
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Lions DE Aidan Hutchinson vs. Panthers LT Ikem Ekwonu: Two of the top six picks in this year’s draft, Hutchinson and Ekwonu — friends and pre-draft training partners — will face off for the first time as pros today. Hutchinson leads all rookies with seven sacks and has played a key role in the Lions’ midseason defensive turnaround. He has two interceptions this season and 41 pressures. Ekwonu has had an up-and-down rookie season. He’s leads the NFL with 12 penalties, but he’s a punishing run blocker and the Panthers have a good enough right tackle they can slide help his way in the pass game. If draft evaluations are right, this could be the first of many meetings between two of the NFL’s rising stars.
Lions run offense vs. Panthers run defense
The Lions have gone to a true backfield by committee in recent weeks, with D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams and Justin Jackson splitting the workload. Williams is the workhorse of the group, wearing defenses down with repeated body blows to open big-play opportunities for Swift and Jackson.
Neither has had much luck hitting home runs of late, and the Lions have not run the ball efficiently as a team. They rank 14th in the NFL in rushing offense (126.1 ypg) and have the third-most rushing touchdowns in the league (19), but they are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry since Thanksgiving, excluding C.J. Moore’s 42-yard gain on a fake punt.
The Panthers rank 22nd in the NFL in rush defense at 130.7 yards per game allowed but have been on a slight upward trend in recent weeks. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown is a violent run defender and middle linebacker Shaq Thompson has eight tackles for loss among his team-high 110 tackles. One area the Lions can exploit: Short-yardage, where the Panthers have allowed conversions on 81% of third-and-1 and third-and-2 run plays. Edge: Panthers.
Lions pass offense vs. Panthers pass defense
Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson explained the push-and-pull he has as a play caller this week. The Lions’ offensive line sometimes comes to the sideline asking for more running plays, but the group is so good pass blocking he often thinks, “Let’s throw it a little bit more. Good things are happening.”
Jared Goff has not thrown an interception in his last 219 pass attempts and has not taken a sack in 10 quarters. He’s playing some of the best football of his career, getting the ball out of his hands quickly and distributing it to his various playmakers. The Lions attempted just four passes of 10-plus yards against the Jets last week. They should have more opportunities downfield Saturday.
The Panthers are stingy with their pass defense. They’ve allowed one 300-yard passing game this season, to Jameis Winston in September, and have held four of their last five opponents below 200 net yards passing. Jaycee Horn is a ball hawk who excels in off man coverage, Burns (10.5 sacks) is disruptive off the edge and defensive back Jeremy Chinn’s versatility helps Carolina disguise its coverages well. Edge: Lions.
Panthers run offense vs. Lions run defense
The Panthers have simplified their offense under Wilks. They want to run the football and control the clock, and when they’ve done that successfully they’ve won games. They’ve had at least 46 rushing attempts in their three wins since the start of November, and 18 or fewer rushes in their three losses.
D’Onta Foreman has four 100-yard rushing games since taking over as Carolina’s lead back following the Christian McCaffrey trade. Chubba Hubbard should get plenty of work Saturday, too, in what could be the coldest home game in Panthers history with a high of 31 degrees. A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Hubbard had 139 yards rushing in wins over the Seahawks and Broncos.
The Lions have allowed a league-low 167 yards rushing the past three weeks and have done a 180 with their run defense since a rough start. Alex Anzalone (105 tackles) is having the best season of his career in part because nose tackle Isaiah Buggs, who could land a contract extension before the end of the season, does a great job occupying blockers in the middle of the line. Edge: Lions.
Panthers pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Sam Darnold has played turnover-free football in three starts since returning from the high ankle sprain he suffered in training camp. He’ll need to keep that up Saturday to give the Panthers a chance against an opportunistic Lions defense that has 12 takeaways in the past seven games.
The Panthers aren’t asking much out of Darnold and the passing game; he’s averaging 22 pass attempts per start. And they aren’t blessed with many playmakers at the skill positions. Neither Foreman nor Hubbard is a threat in the passing game, and D.J. Moore, Carolina’s best receiver, has 51 catches for 678 yards this season.
The Lions rank 30th against the pass (265.1 ypg) and gave up four plays of 30-plus yards against an anemic Jets offense last week. DeShon Elliott is out with a dislocated shoulder, and Ifeatu Melifonwu could make his first career start at safety in his place, so it will be incumbent upon Hutchinson, John Cominsky and the rest of the Lions’ front to get pressure on Darnold on pass downs. Edge: Lions.
Both the Lions and Panthers have top-10 special teams units according to Football Outsiders composite rankings of the kicking game. Kalif Raymond scored his first career punt return touchdown for the Lions last week, and he and Jackson (on kicks) are two of the most efficient return men in the league. Jack Fox had just his third touchback of the season last week, and Michael Badgley is 15 of 18 on field goals with a miss in three of his past four games.
The Panthers have blocked two field goals this season and have done a good job managing field position thanks to Johnny Hekker, who ranks fourth in the NFL in net punting (44.2 yards). Eddy Pinero has made 14 straight field goals, though he rarely tries anything longer than 50 yards, and Raheem Blacksheer is dangerous on kick returns. Edge: Lions.
Both the Lions and Panthers, amazingly, are in the playoff hunt after rough starts, but only one team looks like a legitimate contender. While Carolina’s postseason hopes have been propped up by playing in the worst division in football, the Lions have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL and an emerging young defense. The Panthers are committed enough to run the ball to keep this game close early, but they don’t have the firepower to pull away from a Lions team that’s done all the right things of late. Going on the road isn’t as daunting as it used to be for a Lions team that’s won three straight away from Ford Field, and with a wild card berth within reach I don’t expect any let up Saturday. Pick: Lions 28, Panthers 17.