The Panthers dropped to 5-9 following a 24-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers this past weekend, curbing the team’s first two-game winning streak of the season. Still, the Panthers are only one game back in the NFC South division race, and a win against the Lions would position them to control their own destiny during the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Lions will be a tough challenge, as the 7-7 squad has won six of its past seven games under energetic head coach Dan Campbell. With former first overall pick, quarterback Jared Goff, leading the way, the Panthers defense will be play sound technique or risk giving up big plays against Detroit on Christmas Eve.
Here are five things to know about the Lions heading into the Week 16 matchup:
Lions are peaking at the right time
After four consecutive campaigns of six wins or less, the Lions have already collected seven wins on the season. The Lions started 1-6 but totally turned things around with a 6-1 record in the second half of the season.
The Lions are tied with the Seattle Seahawks — who own a tiebreaker over Detroit — at 7-7, just a half-game behind the Washington Commanders for the final NFC wild-card spot.
The Lions need this win just as much as the Panthers do to make the playoffs. Detroit is peaking at the right time and poses a massive challenge for a Panthers defense that was run over by the Steelers last week.
Goff’s redemption season
Last year, the Los Angeles Rams tossed Goff to Detroit — along with a package of premium picks — for Matthew Stafford. The Rams ended up winning the Super Bowl, while Goff struggled in his first season with the Lions.
This season, Goff has flipped the script, as the Rams have dealt with a miserable, injury riddled campaign from Stafford, who was shut down for the season a few weeks ago.
Goff heads into Week 16 with 3,604 passing yards, which ranks eighth in the league among quarterbacks. His 23 passing touchdowns are tied for the ninth spot on that same list.
Along with putting up big plays, Goff has protected the ball well with just 7 interceptions on the campaign. According to the Lions, Goff set a new franchise record in Week 15 by avoiding an interception for a sixth consecutive game. He has throw 219 passes without a pick.
Goff’s 97.2 passer rating is his best mark since 2018 when he led the Rams to the Super Bowl LIII.
The Panthers can’t afford to make mistakes in coverage against Goff like they did with Mitch Trubisky in Week 15. With cornerback C.J. Henderson (ankle) sidelined, the Panthers will, again, need to rely on Keith Taylor Jr., who was routinely overmatched against the Steelers. That outlook could lead to poor results in the secondary.
Weapons galore in Detroit
Aiding Goff in his redemption efforts are the Lions’ plethora of playmakers. Goff has a three-headed monster at receiver, as Amon-Ra St. Brown, D.J. Chark and Josh Reynolds have all flashed big-play potential.
St. Brown, the team’s top receiver, has 89 catches for 974 yards and six touchdowns on the season. St. Brown is one of the more consistent targets in the NFL, as he has the sixth-most catches at the wide receiver position through 14 games.
Chark has been in and out of the lineup due to injury, but he has been a red-zone weapon when healthy. Through eight games, Chark has caught 21 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns. He is averaging 4 yards after the catch this season.
Finally, Reynolds, Goff’s longtime teammate, has 34 catches for 427 yards and three touchdowns. Reynolds can line up outside and in the slot.
At running back, the Lions are led by a tandem of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. Swift is more of a dynamic, do-everything back, while Williams — the veteran — leads the league with 14 rushing touchdowns. The pair complement each other well, as Williams handles ground-and-pound situations, while Swift changes the pace behind the line of scrimmage.
The Panthers are going to have a tough time picking their poison. On one hand, the Lions’ passing game is explosive and consistent. On the other hand, the Lions’ running game, especially in short-yardage situations, is tough to stop.
Interim head coach Steve Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb will need to mitigate one of the attacks to make the Lions as one-dimensional as possible.
That’s easier said than done.
Punt coverage will be important
Along with having notable weapons on offense, the Lions have a talented punt returner in Kalif Raymond. The 5-foot-8, 180-pound wideout is a slippery returner, and he is one of just three players with a punt return touchdown on the season.
Raymond leads the league with two punt returns of over 40 yards. He has produced three returns of 20 or more yards.
Punter Johnny Hekker, who is among the best field-flippers in the game, will need to be strategic with his leg on Saturday. Special teams aces, like Sean Chandler and Sam Franklin, will also need to play technically sound against Raymond and Detroit’s return squad.
Hekker, Chandler and Franklin have been consistent all season and Christmas Eve will not be the time to let up with one of their biggest challenges to date.
Panthers can put up points on the Lions
While the Lions are fierce on offense, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. The group has given up 42 total touchdowns in 14 weeks, averaging three opponent scores per game.
The Lions are particularly bad against the run. They have allowed the second-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL with 19 scores. They’ve also allowed opposing runners to gain 4.9 yards per carry.
In the passing game, they’ve allowed 23 touchdowns and created just 10 interceptions.
Panthers starting quarterback Sam Darnold has thrown a touchdown pass in three consecutive games. He has also avoided throwing an interception during that time frame. It’s the first time in his career that he has accomplished both of those feats simultaneously.
With that in mind, as long as Darnold doesn’t press, he should be able to come up with some strong scoring drives against Detroit.
Running back D’Onta Foreman — who gained just 9 yards on 10 carries against the Steelers — should be primed for a bounce-back game against the Lions.