Panthers pump up NFL playoff hopes with 37-23 win over Lions

There were a lot of reasons not to attend the Carolina Panthers’ home game Saturday.

It was the coldest home contest in team history. It was Christmas Eve. And there were widespread power outages throughout the city of Charlotte — some of them temporary outages that Duke Energy purposely instituted on a rolling basis, which as you can imagine didn’t go over too well with its customers.

But those Carolina fans who showed up were glad they did, as Carolina whipped Detroit, 37-23, with an inspired performance predicated on an extraordinary rushing game.

The win means that Carolina (6-9) will enter January with a significant chance at the playoffs.

No matter what happens with any other NFC South team in any other game, if the Panthers win at Tampa Bay on Jan. 1 and at New Orleans on Jan. 8, they will host a playoff game in Charlotte the weekend of Jan. 14-15.

Most likely, if the Panthers make the postseason, they would play Dallas at home in a game that would undoubtedly bring to mind the Panthers previously hosting and defeating the Cowboys in playoff games in the 1996 and 2003 postseason.

First things first: The Panthers must win two road games against two NFC South foes also competing for the division crown, which is no easy feat. But neither was Saturday. Detroit (7-8) came into this game as one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having gone 6-1 in its last seven games, and was favored by a field goal.

But by halftime, Carolina led 24-7 and had already gained a whopping 240 rushing yards (only 59 yards short of the team rushing record of 299 for an entire game, which was set in a win over Tampa Bay in 2008). Two Panther backs had already gone over 100 yards, and the team as a whole had three rushing TDs. Carolina’s offense ended up with 320 rushing yards, which was a franchise record, and 570 total yards, also a team record.

Let us now list the Panthers’ five starting offensive linemen for this game, because all of them deserve a game ball: Ickey Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett and Taylor Moton. After Carolina ran for a paltry 21 yards in a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 18, the Panthers got all of that and more on their very first play from scrimmage (Hubbard for 30 yards up the middle). Then they got it again on the second play (Hubbard for 35 yards up the middle).

Much of the afternoon went like that, as Hubbard had 108 rushing yards by halftime and D’Onta Foreman had 104. Quarterback Sam Darnold had a first-half rushing TD, as did Foreman, as did third-string back Raheem Blackshear. The Panthers were almost ridiculous in their offensive efficiency, gaining a team-record 364 yards in the first 30 minutes.

Panthers teammates celebrate after quarterback Sam Darnold scores a touchdown during the game against the Lions at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, December 24, 2022. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez

All of that warmed up the home fans in what was the coldest-weather home game in Panther history. The previous record had been a game in Charlotte vs. New Orleans on Jan. 3, 2010, which had been 30 degrees at kickoff. This one was 20 degrees at kickoff, and those seated on the stadium’s sunny side (the north stands) were thanking their lucky stars.

The coldest game in Panther history, of course, was the playoff game at Green Bay following the 1996 season — 3 degrees at kickoff. Carolina lost that one, 30-13, to a Packers team led by Brett Favre and Reggie White.

Darnold, who has yet to throw an interception this season, aired it out a little more in the second half as the Lions stacked the box to stop the run. His 47-yard deep ball to DJ Moore set up a 5-yard TD pass to Moore on the very next play, giving Carolina a 31-7 lead.

Carolina Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard rushes up the middle during second quarter action against the Detroit Lions at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, December 24, 2022 in Charlotte, NC. JEFF SINER

The Panthers’ scoring slowed down considerably after that, but they still broke both the team rushing record and overall offense record (previously 548, vs. Miami in 2017) on a 28-yard Foreman carry deep in the fourth quarter. Foreman ended up with 165 rushing yards and Hubbard with 125.

Interim coach Steve Wilks improved to 5-5 in his 10 games as the team’s head man following Matt Rhule’s firing after a 1-4 start. And the Panthers will come out of December knowing they are in the hunt. Back when Rhule was getting fired and Christian McCaffrey getting traded in October, that sort of scenario would have seemed miraculous. But now, here we are, and the question is what can the Panthers do next?

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 18 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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