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Are the Lions for real? Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers look at the Lions as they roll into Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field. Detroit News

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Through the first quarter of the season, the Lions are one of six teams sitting pretty atop the NFC.

After grinding out a 14-7 victory at Minnesota last week, Detroit (3-1) returns to Ford Field where it looks to continue climbing up the power rankings and establishing its dominance over conference foes.

But it won’t come easy against a Carolina Panthers team that appears similar statistically on paper, has the same record and is riding high following a road win over the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

Here are 10 things to watch in Sunday’s clash of the NFC’s best (1 p.m. FOX/WJR 760):

1. Roaring for more: Defensive end Anthony Zettel has stepped up in Kerry Hyder’s absence and has been a revelation the first quarter of the season. Zettel has been the team’s most productive pass rusher and has tallied three sacks over the last two games. It’ll be intriguing to see if he can have the same type of impact against a mobile quarterback like Carolina’s Cam Newton.

2. Fountain of youth: Whatever regimen Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers uses, it’s been working. The 16-year pro is proving age is just a number as he continues to make quarterbacks’ lives miserable, recording two sacks in two of the past three games. He has been a thorn in Matthew Stafford’s side over his career but is listed as questionable for Sunday.

3. Homecoming party: With tight end Greg Olsen sidelined with a broken foot, former Michigan and Farmington Hills Harrison product Devin Funchess has taken on a larger role in Carolina’s offense. He’s been targeted 19 times over the past two games and is coming off a 70-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Patriots.

4. Balancing act: While Stafford has yet to eclipse 300 yards passing in a game this season, his ability to take care of the ball has been on the keys to the team’s success. Yet, he’ll have his chances to take shots downfield against a depleted Panthers secondary that will be without ball-hawking safety Kurt Coleman, who suffered an MCL sprain last week.

5. Limit the options: After going up against the likes of Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan and Case Keenum, the Lions’ defense will be facing something it hasn’t yet this season: a mobile quarterback. The Panthers can stress defenses with their option-based, play-action offense, but keying in on Newton and not giving him too much open room to run will be a new test.

6. Stop the chains: Getting stops on third down is always critical and the Lions’ defense has done a solid job in that area, ranking ninth in the league in third-down efficiency (37 percent). However, the Panthers have been the best team at keeping drives alive in third-down situations, ranking first in efficiency (51.9 percent). Preventing chunks of yards on first and second down will go a long way to tipping the scales in Detroit’s favor.

7. Century mark: Ameer Abdullah came close to giving the Lions their first 100-yard rusher since 2013 last week, finishing with 94 yards. Abdullah’s performance was an encouraging sign and a step in the right direction for a team in search of a respectable ground game. We’ll see if that trend continues against another stingy run defense.

8. Riddick’s role: Theo Riddick hasn’t been as much of a factor in the offense, mustering just 87 total yards from scrimmage over the last three games. Much of it has to do with defenses keying in on him and suppressing his impact in the passing game, but it’s on offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to adapt and find a way to utilize Riddick’s strengths.

9. Clutch kickers: Graham Gano and Matt Prater have been productive weapons for the Panthers and Lions this season. Gano has yet to miss a field goal (10-for-10) and kicked the winner from 48 yards out as time expired last week against the Patriots. Prater has misfired once this season, but is tied for the league lead with four field goals of 50-plus yards.

10. Tight end rotation: Who will get the lion’s share of the snaps this week? Eric Ebron has had three lackluster performances in four games and has only caught 11 of the 19 passes thrown his way this year. Meanwhile, Darren Fells helped his case last week and proved he can be an asset in the passing game, while rookie Michael Roberts played a season-high 22 snaps and hauled in a 15-yard catch against the Vikings.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jamesbhawkins


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