Detroit – The Detroit Lions attempted to stage another improbable comeback, but it was too little too late as Carolina Panthers came into Ford Field, built a big lead on the strength of quarterback Cam Newton’s arm and mobility, and escaped with a 27-24 victory Sunday.
The Lions’ offense remained trapped in its month-long slumber deep into the fourth quarter, and the team’s defense failed to provide its customary early-season support, forcing zero turnovers in the loss.
“We had a number of things go wrong,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “But guys fought back and gave ourselves a chance. We were better in terms of penalties, but we didn’t get the turnovers like we usually do, so we got a lot of work to do.”
After a second-quarter touchdown drive, the Lions didn’t cross midfield for seven consecutive possessions, including five straight without a first down. Quarterback Matthew Stafford struggled much of the afternoon, completing just 12-of-20 passes for 99 yards through three quarters as the Panthers built up a three-score advantage in the second half that proved too much to overcome.
“I haven’t played as good as I can possibly play,” Stafford said. “I’ve got to play better. That’s who I’ll look at first is my play and find a way to be better.”
The Lions fell to 3-2 and the Panthers improved to 4-1.
Detroit’s defense, which has been the team’s calling card much of the first month, had no answer for the Panthers, especially backup tight end Ed Dickson.
Dickson entered the game having never tallying more than 79 receiving yards in a game, but topped that mark in the first quarter and finished with 175 yards on five catches in the victory.
“I mean, I was speechless,” Dickson said. “It’s opportunity. You never know how your opportunity is going to come. Missing a player like Greg Olsen, you know we miss him dearly, I’m going to hold it down until he gets back. When they ask me to do a job, that’s what I try to do on each and every play. I had to get the job done and I think I did a pretty good job today.”
Dickson rumbled for 64 yards on the Panthers’ second possession after running through a tackle attempt by safety Tavon Wilson, helping set up a 21-yard Graham Gano field goal that answered a Lions’ field goal on the game’s opening drive.
After tight end Eric Ebron dropped a touchdown pass on the team’s opening possession, the Lions took the lead early in the second quarter, 10-3, after a nine-play, 78-yard drive, aided by two face mask penalties against the Panthers in the red zone. Zach Zenner capped the series with a one-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers quickly responded when Dickson gained another 57 yards on a well-designed play-action on third-and-1. As the Lions defense flooded toward the line of scrimmage to prevent Newton from scrambling, the veteran tight end was left uncovered. Newton flipped a floater over a charging defender and the Lions didn’t catch Dickson until he was inside the 10.
Two plays later, Newton’s mobility came into play again, when it created a sizable lane for a shovel pass to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who skated six yards into the end zone.
“It was really cool that I got the ball and the gate kind of opened up,” McCaffrey said.
Carolina took the lead with 55 seconds remaining in the first half. On third-and-7 at the Lions 10, the defense couldn’t generate any pass rush, allowing Newton to maneuver around in the backfield and eventually find Devin Funchess in the back of the end zone.
The Panthers extended their advantage to 14 on the opening drive of the second half when Newton dropped a high-arching touchdown pass into the waiting hands of 6-foot-5 target Kelvin Benjamin, who had gotten a step on cornerback Darius Slay on the outside.
The Lions responded by fumbling the ball right back to the Panthers. Stafford coughed the ball up while being sacked by defensive end Mario Addison. And even though the defense came up with the quick stop, the Panthers pushed the lead to 27-10 with a 44-yard Gano field goal thanks to the drive’s starting field position.
Stafford had a rough day until mounting the comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. He made some poor throws in the first half and was later battered by the Panthers defensive line, absorbing six sacks.
The Lions finally ended a nearly 38-minute scoring drought with 5:56 remaining in the fourth quarter. Stafford completed all seven of his passes on the 69-yard drive, connecting with tight end Darren Fells for a four-yard score to get back within 10 of the Panthers, 27-17.
After a defensive stop, Stafford breathed life into the home crowd by leading another touchdown drive. The 53-yard series was highlighted by a third-down, 25-yard catch-and-run to Jared Abbrederis. Three plays later, after two incompletions, Stafford found Fells for a second score. The 20-yard touchdown and ensuing extra point made it 27-24 with 3:28 remaining.
“He’s been the same way, good and steady, last couple of weeks,” Caldwell said about Fells. “I mean, he’s a talented guy. There’s a role that he plays for us, but it’s not limited to just one single role. He can catch passes. He can run routes, good in the red zone. He’s good out in the field.”
With no timeouts remaining, the Lions defense couldn’t afford to give up a first down, but on third-and-9 Newton connected with Benjamin for 17 yards on a post route. After the two-warning, Newton took three straight knees to run out the clock.
Newton finished 26-of-33 passing for 355 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Stafford was 23-of-35 for 229 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Lions’ run game managed just 50 yards, with a team-best 31 by Ameer Abdullah.