CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—The playoff-bound Carolina Panthers had to make a choice: Rest some of their ailing starters or play them in pursuit a momentum-building win.
The lowly Detroit Lions made it an easy decision.
Carolina rested five starters, but still managed one of its easiest wins of the year, beating Detroit 20-14 on Sunday and sending the Lions into NFL infamy with their 24th consecutive road loss.
“You have to operate in the present,” said Carolina coach John Fox. “The idea of building momentum going into the playoffs was critical, but I really don’t think any of the five guys would have been ready to play.”
Carolina’s fill-ins did just fine, holding Detroit in check as the Lions moved past the 1981-84 Houston Oilers for most successive road losses. The Lions have not won away from home since Dec. 17, 2000.
“It eats me alive and makes me absolutely sick to my stomach to think about it,” said Lions guard Ray Brown. “Everybody on the team is part of the streak and it’s nothing to be proud of.”
The Lions (4-11) had just eight first downs and 106 yards of total offense. Quarterback Joey Harrington only played until midway through the second quarter before Mike McMahon replaced him, but the two combined to go 7-of-19 for 53 yards.
“There’s a lot of searching for answers, a lot of things to fix and some things to build on,” said first-year coach Steve Mariucci. “These guys care a lot and are determined to break that streak.”
Despite winning its first division title in seven years, very few of Carolina’s wins came easily. Seven of the Panthers’ 10 victories this year are by three or fewer points and eight came in the final two minutes or overtime.
And as much as Carolina needs momentum-building wins to close out the regular season, allowing ailing players time to heal is also a priority.
But their replacements did fine. DeShaun Foster ran for 76 yards and had six catches for 38 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme. Rookie Bruce Nelson’s first career start at center was without incident.
Detroit was nearly shut out, but two big plays made the final score closer than then game actually was.
Reggie Swinton returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to cut Carolina’s lead to 20-7 with 12:02 left.
Then Foster fumbled on a late catch and Boss Bailey scooped it up and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown.
The Panthers didn’t aggressively try to stop Bailey’s return, thinking Foster’s drop shouldn’t have been ruled a fumble. Carolina challenged, but the call was upheld and the Lions cut it to 20-14 with 3:44 to play.
“That showed a lot about this team,” said cornerback Dre’ Bly. “We could have easily folded, but we didn’t.”
Still, those were the lone bright spots on a dismal offensive day for Detroit.
McMahon did put together a decent second-quarter drive, using an 11-yard scramble to move the Lions to the Carolina 24. But his next pass sailed straight into Carolina safety Mike Minter’s hands to end the drive.
The Panthers used the interception to set up Kasay’s 42-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead.
Kasay, spotty the past six or so weeks, added a 44-yarder in the third quarter that made it 20-0.
“We needed a game that didn’t come down to the wire,” defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. “Although the final score doesn’t indicate it, we playedpretty well and got ourselves in position to close out the season strong.”
Bailey had a game-high 12 tackles along with his fumble recovery for a touchdown. … Ricky Proehl had three catches for Carolina to give him 603 for his career. … Carolina receiver Kevin Dyson had two catches for his first game-action of the season. His 9-yard reception in the fourth quarter— originally ruled incomplete but overturned on a challenge—drew a heartyovation from the home crowd.