The Last Word: Panthers at Lions

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: The offensive line was the feel-good story of the season's first half, but the unit couldn't feel good about how it performed last time out in Pittsburgh. Cam Newton was sacked five times after going down just 12 times through eight games, and the Panthers fell short of 100 rushing yards for just the second time all season. Getting in a hole early thanks in part to a near-sack that turned into a pick-six played a role in the high number of sacks and low number of rushing yards, so the line will want to re-establish its control of things early in Detroit. The Lions, by the way, rank 28th in run defense (132.7 yards allowed per game).

Defensive key: No one has really talked about the Lions' running game since Barry Sanders retired, but there's reason to discuss thanks to Kerryon Johnson. The rookie running back stopped a 70-game streak without a 100-yard rusher for the Lions in a Week 3 victory over the Patriots. Carolina's defense always harps on stopping the run first, and while Matthew Stafford still likes to sling it around, that's the perfect starting point Sunday. Johnson has totaled 329 rushing yards in Detroit's three wins; he's totaled 225 in six losses.

Gutsy guess: Last year in Detroit, a Panthers reserve sparkled, with tight end Ed Dickson racking up 175 receiving yards in Carolina's victory. Dickson started that day in place of Greg Olsen, and Jarius Wright might officially start Sunday, but he's down the list of most discussed Carolina's pass catchers. There'll be reason to talk about him Sunday when Mr. Third Down transforms into Mr. Touchdown and returns to the end zone for the first time since Week 2 while also topping his season high of five receptions.

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Max Henson

Offensive key: A fast start is exactly what Carolina produced last week in Pittsburgh, finding the end zone on the game's opening possession. Then it all went downhill from there. I still say a fast start is the key for the Panthers as they look to solve their road woes. I don't see what happened on Thursday Night Football repeating itself. Build an early lead and start pounding away at a Lions team that is very much on the ropes at 3-6.

Defensive key: The Lions are having major issues protecting Stafford, who has been sacked 16 times in the last two games. The Panthers are waiting to see their pass rush start clicking. This seems like a perfect matchup for that, and I think pressure on Stafford is the key to the entire game. But, you can't rush the passer effectively without stopping the run. Bryan noted some important stats in that regard, and here are some more: In their three losses - all on the road - the Panthers have given up 5.8 yards per carry to the opposing team's starting running back. Can't let Kerryon Johnson, who averages 5.4 yards per attempt, continue that trend.

Gutsy guess: Carolina's proud defense has to respond after the Steelers piled up yards and points on a national stage. Linebacker Thomas Davis, the emotional leader of the unit, will set the tone and fill the stat sheet. I'm seeing 10 tackles, a sack and an interception from Davis, who'll lead by example on Sunday.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: As Bryan noted, the Lions haven't been good against the run. The Panthers need to exploit that weakness. Yeah, Newton has more passing options than ever, but the ground game still fuels Carolina's offense. In their six wins, the Panthers averaged 151.2 rushing yards. They averaged 99.0 in their three losses.

Defensive key: Stafford is averaging one interception per game, and the Lions are tied for the eighth-most giveaways with 14. The Panthers have to raise that number because these numbers are telling: In their six wins, they had 14 takeaways while they forced just one turnover in their three losses.

Gutsy guess: Newton threw four interceptions in his first game against the Lions in 2011. In two meetings since he's thrown four touchdowns and no picks. I think the Panthers will easily eclipse 100 rushing yards, but Newton will toss four scores.

Carolina leads the all-time series with Detroit, 6-3.

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