CAROLINA PANTHERS (3-1) AT DETROIT LIONS (3-1)
SERIES HISTORY: Eighth regular-season meeting. The Panthers lead the series, 5-2. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had one of the more productive games of his career against the Panthers in 2011, when he threw for 338 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-35 victory. Kevin Smith also ran for 140 yards and two scores in that game, while Cam Newton ran for two touchdowns for Carolina.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Few NFL teams are as balanced as the Panthers, who have two complementary running backs plus the dangerous Newton in their backfield. The Lions are allowing better than 4.0 yards per carry, though game situations have often dictated opponents abandon the run. The Panthers won't do that Sunday, so the Lions must get a handle on Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey early. Offensively, this is a game the Lions can take to the air so long as they can protect up for Stafford. Look for the Lions to spread their offense out more than they did last week and take a few shots downfield.
The Panthers might need to upgrade the defensive pressure because while they won at New England they didn't exactly stop QB Tom Brady. So with facing QB Matt Stafford, that's another challenge of huge proportions.
There's also the matter of a depleted defensive backfield because of injuries, so that means applying more pressure up front is bound to be critical. The Panthers will want to continue to show growth on the offensive side and the Lions are bound to put up a better defensive showing than New England. But the Panthers have shown the ability to spread the ball around on offense and that's something that's bound to continue. With QB Cam Newton likely expressing more confidence, this could be a chance to expand the playbook as well.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers C Tyler Larsen vs. Lions NG Haloti Ngata. Larsen has started the past three games because of C Ryan Kalil's neck injury. While Kalil is closer to returning, Larsen, who's a second-year pro, has been solid while filing in. Yet this week, Larsen has also missed practice time. Ngata is in his 12th NFL season, so he no doubt is probably anxious to go against a relative newcomer and see if he can disrupt what the Panthers are trying to do at the line of scrimmage.
--Lions LG Graham Glasgow vs. Panthers DT Kawann Short. Short had 17 sacks in the 2015-16 seasons and remains one of the best interior pass in the NFL. He plays primarily at the right defensive tackle spot, which means he'll face the Lions' least dependable interior lineman in Glasgow. The Lions surely will give Glasgow help from center Travis Swanson, but whatever they do they need to limit the interior pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford..
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--Out: S Kurt Coleman (knee), S Demetrious Cox (ankle), C Ryan Kalil (neck)
--Out: WR Kenny Golladay (hamstring), RB Dwayne Washington (quadricep), LB Paul Worrilow (knee)
--Questionable: DE Ezekiel Ansah (knee), S Don Carey (knee), LB Jarrad Davis (neck), G T.J. Lang (back), DT Haloti Ngata (shoulder), C Travis Swanson (ankle), T Rick Wagner (ankle, shoulder), LB Tahir Whitehead (pectoral)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers DE Ziggy Ansah. Ansah has had a quiet season so far as he's clearly been slowed by the knee injury that caused him to miss all of training camp. While left end Anthony Zettel has been the Lions' best pass rusher with four sacks and a fumble recovery in four games, Ansah has been quiet outside of a three-sack performance against the Giants' Ereck Flowers. This week, Ansah faces former NFC North foe Matt Kalil, a player he's terrorized throughout his career.
FAST FACTS: Carolina QB Cam Newton completed 22 of 29 (75.9 pct.) for 316 yards, three TDs and one INT last week. He also rushed for a TD in Week 4, becoming the first QB in NFL history with 50 rushing TDs. In two career meetings, he has 561 pass yards and four TDs. ... Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart has 6,868 career rushing yards and surpassed DeAngelo Williams (6,846) for most in team history. He has two TDs in three career meetings. ... Carolina DE Julius Peppers ranks third in the NFC with 4.5 sacks. He has 148 career sacks, fifth-most in NFL history. He has 14 sacks and eight forced fumbles in 18 meetings. ... Detroit QB Matthew Stafford has 626 passing yards, six TDs and three interceptions in two meetings. In past four vs. NFC South, he has 1,170 passing yards, nine TDs and no INTs. He has 903 passing yards, seven TDs and two INTs in his past three home games. ... Detroit RB Ameer Abdullah rushed for a career-high 94 yards and a TD in Week 4. ... Detroit DE Anthony Zettel led the team with two sacks last week, his first multi-sack game.
PREDICTION: Was the Panthers' offensive resurgence last week a product of Newton simply shrugging off a slow start or the fact that the Patriots can't stop anyone these days? Regardless, the Lions' 3-1 record seems more solid than Carolina's, and it will be reflected at game's end in downtown Detroit.
OUR PICK: Lions, 24-20.