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Panthers vs. Lions preview

The Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions enter Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium coming off strong opening day victories.

The Panthers (1-0) won 20-14 at Tampa Bay without Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, sidelined with fractured ribs. The Lions (1-0) dismantled the New York Giants 35-14 Monday night on the strength of 346 yards passing by quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The last time these teams met it was a shootout, with Detroit winning 49-35 in 2011. Stafford threw five touchdown passes in that game, but the Panthers have a much-improved defense with only two starters remaining from that team.

NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down:

Newton: Michael, the Lions started fast last season before fading down the stretch. What did you see in Monday's victory that makes you believe this team might be in it for the long haul?

Rothstein: Saw two things, David. The first is Stafford, who looked calmer, more confident and more comfortable than at any previous point of his career. He appeared at ease in the new Detroit offense, executing checkdowns correctly and making the right reads and smart calls. If Stafford continues to play the way he did Monday, the Lions will be in every game.

The other thing was Detroit's defensive front. The Lions didn't have a lot of sacks -- two, including 1.5 by George Johnson -- but they pressured Eli Manning often and were good against the run, as well. The Lions held the Giants to 2.4 yards a carry. Here's the problem, though: As good as Detroit looked, its secondary is already in some tatters. Bill Bentley, the nickelback, is out for the season. The Lions have two safeties banged up.

Receiver was a question for Carolina entering the season, but can that group exploit a somewhat suspect back four for Detroit?

Newton: Did you happen to get a look at rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against a pretty good Tampa Bay defense? He caught six passes for 92 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown catch few in the league outside of Detroit's Calvin Johnson would have made. So the answer is yes. I said this a hundred times in the offseason: The Panthers are better off now at receiver than they were a year ago. Benjamin is the real deal. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant might be role players, but that's why they were brought in.

The biggest task for Detroit will be stopping tight end Greg Olsen and the backs on swing passes. When teams shift toward Benjamin on the outside, that leaves the middle of the field open for Olsen. He had eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and had another 30-yarder that went just off his fingertips that would have made it 24-0 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers are running a lot of two-tight-end sets to force teams to load the box to stop the run, which is going to set up a lot of one-on-one coverages. If there's a weakness, Carolina has enough weapons to exploit it.

I noticed Stafford was under a lot of pressure at times Monday night. He handled it really well, but the Panthers led the league in sacks last season and have the entire front seven back. How do you see that matchup against Detroit's offensive line?

Rothstein: It's an interesting question because Detroit had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season from a pass-protection standpoint. This season, there are a few more questions, particularly at right tackle. Stafford was sacked once against the Giants, and it could have been more if not for Stafford's footwork. Plus, Detroit's right tackle situation is in flux as LaAdrian Waddle is hurt and being replaced by Corey Hilliard. Hilliard can play -- he almost beat Waddle out in the preseason -- but he was limping after the game and the team's fourth tackle is undrafted rookie free agent Cornelius Lucas.

The interior of the line should be able to handle most tests, as Larry Warford might be one of the top two or three young guards in the NFL. It'll be interesting to see whether this line can hold up through the whole year, though, as Dominic Raiola is in his mid-30s and Rob Sims didn't play much in the preseason as he recovered from a knee injury.

Since you asked about the line, the Giants did what most teams do to Detroit's defensive line -- double-team Ndamukong Suh and force his teammates to cause havoc. Suh is one of the most extraordinary players in the league. How do the Panthers come up with a game plan for him?

Newton: Probably like they handled Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy last week, with double-teams and throwing fresh bodies at him. McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, if not the best. He had eight tackles and one sack against Carolina, but the sack was more the fault of quarterback Derek Anderson than the line, and it was the only sack Carolina gave up. You also have to remember the Panthers were playing without Newton, so the Bucs didn't have to respect the quarterback as a threat to keep the ball on the read-option. That'll keep a D-line from teeing off some. Surprisingly, the line played well with basically four new starters. The key for Carolina will be establishing the run to keep Suh and the Lions from causing havoc.

When these teams last played, in 2011, it was a shootout. And the Lions just put 35 up on the Giants. What type of a game do you expect this time?

Rothstein: I'm thinking it'll be somewhat similar because of the potency of both offenses, assuming Newton plays for Carolina. Add in the issues in the Lions' secondary and there is a good chance it will end up being a game in the 30s on both sides.

For Detroit to win, this might have to be a shootout because the run game is suspect right now. Although the stats looked bad at the end -- 2.0 yards a carry -- it was actually worse. The Lions averaged 1.2 yards a carry in the first half against the Giants. If Carolina can force Detroit to rely solely on the pass and get some pressure, it could force Stafford into the mistakes he didn't make Monday night.

Carolina has been known for so long for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who end up as a combined top-10 rushing duo most seasons. Has Newton's maturation changed their roles, and how do the Panthers divide carries provided Stewart stays healthy?

Newton: Before I get to the backs, let me assure you that if this is a game with scores in the 30s, the Lions will win. Only one team scored more than 24 points last season against the Carolina defense, which ranked second in the league. New Orleans scored 31 at home and won. I just don't see Detroit scoring that many.

As for the backs, this is the first time in about three years Stewart has been healthy, and even though he didn't have big numbers against Tampa he ran hard. It's really a three-headed situation with Mike Tolbert added to the mix. Tampa stacked the box for much of the day, but the Panthers still managed to rush for 113 yards, and that again was without Newton in there as a threat. He makes it a four-headed situation, although I'm not so sure he'll run as much this week in an effort to protect the ribs.

The Panthers want to run and control the clock as they did last week. They held almost a 3-1 advantage in time of possession in the first half against the Bucs. Their goal will be the same against Detroit, figuring Stafford and all his weapons can't hurt them when they're not on the field. For the Panthers to win, they have to do that and keep this game in the low 20s at the most.