NFC South Reporter
Carolina’s surge behind a dominant running game under interim coach Steve Wilks continued with a 37-23 victory over the Lions on Saturday, putting more pressure on the Buccaneers atop the NFC South standings and establishing a showdown next week in Tampa.
Carolina (6-9) rushed for a franchise-record 320 yards on Saturday, including 240 in the first half, en route to a 24-7 lead over a Detroit team that had won six of seven games . D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard both topped 100 rushing yards at halftime, with Foreman finishing with 165 and a touchdown and Hubbard finishing with 125.
“We talked all week about (how) the true character of this football team would be revealed in how we responded,” Wilks said after the Panthers improved to 5-5 since taking over after the layoff by Matt Rhule in October. “I’m very proud again of the men in that dressing room and how we came out and played against a good football team today.”
The Bucs (6-8) don’t play until Sunday night at Arizona, and Carolina’s win adds to the importance of this game. If the Bucs beat the Cardinals, they can clinch the NFC South next week by beating the Panthers in Tampa. A Tampa Bay loss on Christmas would mean Carolina can eliminate the Bucs with a win over them, putting the Panthers in a strong position for an unlikely division title.
The Panthers scored on five of their first six possessions Saturday, including four touchdowns, to take a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter. Detroit’s offense woke up 16 points behind, but the Lions never got closer than 14 points. Quarterback Sam Darnold played error-free football for Carolina, throwing for 250 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score.
“Everything we do starts up front, and to see us come back and run the ball like we did today for a franchise-record 320, that was impressive,” Wilks said. “Total yards were 570. On the defensive side of the ball, controlling the line of scrimmage there and stopping the run with 45 yards. So proud of them and how they came out and rebounded and played… Everything we talk about is One by One. We’re going to enjoy tomorrow with our families, enjoy Christmas, come back here Monday at 1 p.m., put this game to bed and get ready for Tampa.”
The Bucs have lost two straight to the 49ers and Bengals to create an opportunity for the Panthers. Tampa Bay, however, remains favored on Sunday as Arizona’s third-string QB Trace McSorley will make his first career start.
A half-game separates the top three teams in the NFC South as New Orleans also rallied to win on Saturday, turning a 10-point deficit into a 17-10 victory against the Browns. The Saints are also 6-9 and still alive for the playoffs. They need a lot of help, but they could also win the division title if the next eight days go well and they beat the Panthers in the regular season finale.
While not as cold as some games this weekend, the kickoff temperature in Charlotte was only 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds of 10 miles per hour and a wind chill of 9 degrees, the type of weather that favors a dominant running game. Only three NFL teams over the past eight seasons have rushed for 320 yards as Carolina did Saturday: The Eagles had 363 in a November win over the Packers, the Ravens had 404 last season in a win over the Bengals last season and the Jets went there. for 323 in a 2018 win over the Broncos.
Carolina had accumulated just 21 rushing yards in last week’s loss to the Steelers, a world of difference from Saturday, but the offensive line set the tone at practice this week, even wearing face masks ‘ski in a team meeting to set a threatening tone for a physical. game ahead
“Our guys did a great job coming off the ball, getting to the second level, which was a key for us,” Wilks said. “We always feel like our runners, if they can get to the second level before they get hit, they can do a great job of making the first man miss, and you saw that a little bit today.”
The Panthers have now won four of their last six games, making them the hottest team in a bad division that could have a champion with a losing record. That still means a home playoff game, something the Panthers haven’t enjoyed since going 15-1 in 2015 before losing in the Super Bowl.
Whether the Bucs win or lose Sunday, the Panthers can control their playoff destiny simply by winning their remaining two games, against teams they beat in their first meetings earlier this season.
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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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