Even though Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was ready to bounce back from the worst game of his career last week, he was just fine letting his two running backs lead the team to victory.
The Panthers rode the coat tails of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart all the way to their fourth straight win as the two combined for 250 yards on the ground and three touchdowns in a 31-22 victory over the still-winless Lions.
Williams started the game at tailback and rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries while Stewart came on in relief and wound up rushing for 130 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in his first game at full strength since injuring his heel early in the Arizona game Week Eight.
Altogether, the Panthers rushed for 264 yards, a team record. It was also the first time in Panthers history that two running backs had eclipsed the 100-yard plateau in the same game.
For Williams, it was his third straight 100-yard rushing effort, and he tied the Panthers team record for most career 100-yard games with seven—a record he is sure to eclipse this season.
Delhomme spent most of the day as a bystander, watching his backs filet the Lions defense for large chunks of yardage.
Delhomme finished with modest numbers, completing 10-of-19 for 98 yards and a touchdown. He was not sacked or picked off and registered an 85.0 quarterback rating. His longest pass completion was 16 yards and only four Panthers receivers caught balls. His lone touchdown strike was a 15-yarder to tight end Jeff King for the first of three second-quarter Panther touchdowns.
The Lions came out determined not to let themselves get knocked out of the game early and scored on their first possession of the game for the first time this season.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper, playing in his second game since coming out of retirement to join the lowly Lions, found star receiver Calvin Johnson in the middle of the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown that silenced the crowd at Bank of America Stadium.
Culpepper finished the day 20-of-35 for 207 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He hit eight different receivers while being sacked three times. Culpepper also tacked on a rushing touchdown that gave the Lions a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but his quarterback draw on the two-point conversion was stopped by Jon Beason.
Johnson caught six passes for 65 yards to go along with the touchdown and rookie running back Kevin Smith led the Lions on the ground with 112 yards on 24 carries. It was only the second time the Panthers had allowed a 100-yard rusher this year.
The Lions added a Jason Hanson field goal early in the second quarter to stretch their lead to 10-0. It looked as though the Lions may have finally caught on and could be in position to notch their first win, but the Panthers quickly got their act together.
The Carolina offense was in full swing in the second quarter. The Panthers scored 21 of their 31 points in the 13 minutes between Hanson’s first field goal and the halftime break.
Delhomme was 5-of-6 for 45 yards and threw his lone touchdown to King in the quarter, and Stewart and Williams combined for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers sustained scoring drives of 76 and 80 yards and scored on a five-play, 38-yard drive that started when rookie safety Charles Godfrey recovered a fumble by former Panthers tight end Michael Gaines. The play was originally whistled dead, but coach John Fox threw the challenge flag and the call was overturned, awarding the ball to Carolina.
Hanson managed another field goal for the Lions in the midst of the Panthers' offensive explosion and another just before the half as the Carolina defense was exposed by a quick drive that was set up by a 46-yard kickoff return by the Lions’ Aveion Cason.
The halftime score was 21-16, and although the Panthers had just taken the lead, it seemed as though they had found an offensive rhythm and would come out firing in the second half. That would not be the case, though.
John Kasay tacked on a field goal for the Panthers after their first possession of the second half went for 10 plays and 70 yards in six and a half minutes.
The Panthers' offense had picked up just where they left off, but would slow down as the game went on, punting on three of their last five possessions. Kasay’s field goal ended up being the only points of the third quarter for either team.
Midway through the third quarter, Steve Smith caught a pass from Delhomme and turned to go up the field when Lions cornerback Leigh Bodden hit him and jarred the ball loose. Linebacker Paris Lenon came up with the fumble and gave the Lions great field position inside Carolina territory with a chance to score and perhaps tie the game with a two-point conversion.
The Panthers' defense, however, came up big.
They stopped Smith for a nine-yard loss on second down and then forced what looked to be a three-and-out. On the punt, Panthers backup tight end Gary Barnidge got through the line and challenged Lions punter Nick Harris’ punt. He was a split second late, though, and his helmet caught Harris’ kicking foot on his way by, sending Harris theatrically flying to the ground and drawing the 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty.
The Panthers' defense was forced back out onto the field and came up big again. Two Smith rushes for minimal gains and a Culpepper incompletion brought Harris back onto the field, this time getting his punt off untouched and the Panthers survived the turnover unscathed.
The Lions' first possession of the fourth quarter was their best drive of the game and perhaps their best drive of the season. Culpepper and Smith orchestrated a 15-play, 70-yard, 8-minute drive that was capped off by Culpepper’s first rushing touchdown since coming out of retirement.
Trailing by two, Culpepper lined up the offense for the two-point conversion. He again called his own number, but was stopped just short of the goal line by Jon Beason, who grabbed Culpepper’s facemask, but was not whistled for a penalty for doing so.
On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, the offense was halted for a three-and-out and punted to the Lions with 4:50 left in the game.
The suspense would be short-lived, though, as Godfrey picked off Culpepper on the drive’s first play and returned it to the Detroit four-yard line, setting up Williams' second rushing touchdown of the day on the next play, essentially ending Detroit’s hopes.
The teams traded punts and in a last effort to try to organize a miracle comeback, Culpepper led the Lions near midfield with just over a minute left. On 4th-and-9, Culpepper was faced with a do-or-die situation.
He dropped back into the pocket and was quickly met by Julius Peppers who recorded his second sack of the afternoon and caused Culpepper to fumble the ball. Panthers rookie Hilee Taylor was credited with the recovery.
Delhomme took two knees in the victory formation and put the stamp on another Panthers victory.
Peppers’ two sacks gave him five in the last two games and should go a long way towards speeding up contract talks with the Panthers. He has nine sacks on the year and leads the league in forced fumbles with five.
Thomas Davis led the Panthers defense with 10 solo tackles, half of a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass deflection.
The Lions (0-10) will go on to face Tampa Bay at home next Sunday, their second straight NFC South opponent. Detroit has six games remaining to avoid being winless and to try to take something positive from this season.