The Detroit Lions went into Saturday’s game feeling strong about how they had been playing. If they could close out each of their last three games with a win, they were almost certainly going to make the playoffs—a dream scenario given their 1-6 start.
But from the very beginning of their game against the Carolina Panthers, they were physically dominated. Carolina controlled the line of scrimmage, as both running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard each had 100 yards rushing by halftime. The Lions offense couldn’t keep up due to an early, costly turnover from Jared Goff and a running game that continues to struggle.
The Panthers were up 24-7 at halftime and the Lions couldn’t even make the final score look any better in a second half that both teams seemed to coast in.
The loss does not drop the Lions out of playoff contention, but their road will be much more difficult. And if they play like this again, they have absolutely no chance of finishing among the top seven NFC teams. Let’s hope this is a wake-up call for the Lions and not a final, crushing blow to their season.
Here’s how Saturday’s game unfolded.
The Lions won the coin toss and deferred, giving the Panthers the ball first. Carolina got off to a promising start with a 30 yard run from Chuba Hubbard around the left end. He followed it up with a 35-yard run on the next play, and the Panthers were already in the red zone. A few plays later, quarterback Sam Darnold ran the option, pitched it to Raheem Blackshear, and the Panthers scored after just five rushing plays. 7-0 Panthers.
The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Lions offense good starting position at their own 40-yard line. After two incomplete passes, Jared Goff went deep to DJ Chark, who caught a contested catch for a big 39-yard gain.
From there, the Lions picked up another clutch third down with a 13-yard gain to Amon-Ra St. Brown that set the Lions up first-and-goal. The Lions quickly cashed in with a play action touchdown pass to Shane Zylstra. 7-7 tie.
The Panthers rushing game continued to soar against the Lions defense. D’Onta Foreman blasted for 21 yards on the first rush of the next drive. A false start and a tackle for loss from Alim McNeill forced the Panthers into a third-and-6 at midfield, but Ian Thomas dropped a potential first down (that would’ve been called back due to a penalty). Carolina punted to Detroit’s 9-yard line.
Detroit got out of their own end zone with a second-down pass to rookie James Mitchell that went for 22 yards. Then Goff completed a pass to his third different tight end with Brock Wright getting Detroit to midfield with an 11-yard gain. St. Brown held onto a tough catch for another 19 yards down to the Panthers’ 34-yard line.
That catch pushed Amon-Ra St. Brown beyond 1,000 yards, becoming the youngest Lions player to ever do so.
The Lions got themselves into another tricky situation: fourth-and-1 from the Panthers’ 22-yard line, and Detroit picked it up with Jamaal Williams pushing forward for 2 yards and into the red zone. The Lions were driving as the first quarter came to a close.
Kalif Raymond got the Lions into a goal-to-go situation with a nifty end around play, but it was all for naught. Goff fumbled the next snap exchange and Panthers defender Yetur Gross-Matos recovered at his own 9-yard line.
The Lions defense continued to struggle. A play action pass to Tommy Tremble immediately picked up 18 yards for Carolina. Then Foreman broke a couple of tackles for another explosive run, this time for 38 yards. They pushed down inside the 5-yard line with an option run from Darnold. He did it again two plays later for a 3-yard touchdown run and a 14-7 Panthers lead.
Detroit quickly went three-and-out, as back-to-back Goff passes were batted down at the line.
A holding penalty on the punt set the Panthers back inside their own 10-yard line, but it didn’t matter much. Darnold hit Terrace Marshall Jr. for a 36-yard strike with Jerry Jacobs in tight coverage to move towards midfield. Foreman followed it up with a 21-yard run and just like that the Panthers were in scoring position again. A fourth-and-inch quarterback sneak kept the drive alive. A few plays later, Foreman punched it in for a 4-yard touchdown. 21-7 Panthers.
Detroit had two minutes to cut it back to a one-score game. Instead, they went three-and-out again, giving the Panthers 59 seconds left to add to their lead. Another explosive play on the ground—a 33-yard gain from Hubbard—quickly got Carolina to midfield. A penalty on each team kept the Panthers out of the end zone, but they got close enough to tack on a field goal and go to halftime with a 24-7 Panthers lead.
The Lions offense couldn’t kick start the second half, as Goff was sacked on third down by Brian Burns for Detroit’s third straight three-and-out.
The Panthers drove to midfield, and found themselves in a third-and-13. The Lions sent pressure that didn’t get there and Darnold found DJ Moore for a 47-yard bomb.
He went right back to Moore for a 5-yard bubble screen for another touchdown. 31-7 Panthers
After the team traded punts, the Lions closed the gap late in the third quarter. A 56-yard bomb to Kalif Raymond got Detroit in striking distance, and Goff found Zylstra again for a 7-yard touchdown pass on fourth down. Detroit opted to go for two, but failed. 31-13 Panthers.
An Isaiah Buggs personal foul penalty helped the Panthers move into field goal range, and Carolina tacked on another three points with just over 13 minutes left in the game. 34-13 Panthers.
Detroit had an opportunity to cut it to a two-score lead, but they failed to convert on a fourth-and-5 deep in Panthers territory, and it was curtains after that.
Zylstra would add a garbage-time touchdown with four minutes left, his third of the day. 34-20 Panthers.
But a failed onside kick would put the final nail in the coffin, and the teams would trade field goals to make the final score 37-23 Panthers.
The loss drops the Lions to 7-8 on the season, and puts an abrupt halt to playoff talk. The postseason is not unobtainable for the Lions, but there is no more margin for error.