Panthers run wild on Christmas Eve: Grading win over Lions

With Mother Nature giving Charlotte the cold shoulder with below-freezing temperatures on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers embraced their ground-and-pound identity and caught fire with their running game in a historic 37-23 win over the Detroit Lions.

After producing just 21 total rushing yards in a humiliating home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, the Panthers chose to go back to their rushing attack on Christmas Eve, and that strategy paid off exceptionally well, as Carolina produced six runs of 20 or more yards in the first half alone.

With 320 total rushing yards and three touchdowns, the Panthers (6-9) set a franchise record for rushing yards in a game. The offense also set a franchise record for single-game total yardage with 570 yards against the Lions.

Interim head coach Steve Wilks — who is looking to be the Panthers’ permanent solution at the top of the coaching staff — leaned heavily on his desire to create a brooding, violent product on the field. And the offensive line and his running backs paid him back with an elite performance.

Quarterback Sam Darnold — who continued to protect the ball well — had an efficient afternoon, as he was only asked to manage drives with D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard running all over the Lions’ hapless defense.

The Panthers, who surged past the Lions (7-8), now have plenty of momentum heading into their back-to-back NFC South road matchups to close out the season.

If the Panthers defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17 and New Orleans Saints in Week 18, they’ll be guaranteed the division title, despite having a solidified “losing” record.

After a 1-4 start, Wilks has now led the Panthers on a 5-5 run. Carolina is still in the running for the first playoff berth of the David Tepper ownership era with two games left on the regular-season slate.

Here is how The Charlotte Observer graded out the Panthers’ dominant win over the Lions:

Rushing Offense

A+. The Panthers switched things up in the starting lineup for Week 16, as Hubbard received the opening handoff from Darnold. That decision proved to be a smart one, as Hubbard ran for 70 yards on the first three carries of the contest.

The Panthers scored their first touchdown without passing the ball once, as they ran five running plays for 83 yards and a score. Using a zone-blocking scheme, the Panthers hit pay dirt on a delayed handoff from Darnold to rookie Raheem Blackshear.

The Panthers kept pressing on the run game during the second drive, as Foreman joined the party with a 21-yard gain to start the series.

Coming into the matchup, the Lions had seemingly improved their lowly run defense, having held the Minnesota Vikings to just 22 rushing yards in Week 14 and the New York Jets to 50 rushing yards in Week 15.

But Hubbard surpassed that Week 14 total with his first carry and the Week 15 total with his second carry. The Panthers produced 103 yards and touchdown on seven carries in their two series.

The pummeling continued in the second quarter as the Panthers picked up where they left off after a Lions’ turnover.

Foreman picked up a quick 38-yard gain to begin the drive and put the Panthers in Lions territory. The Panthers capped their second scoring drive with a 3-yard keeper by Darnold for a touchdown. At that point, Darnold had 16 rushing yards and a touchdown on two carries, while the Lions — as a team — had 16 yards on 10 carries.

The Panthers continued to pile on with another touchdown-scoring drive in the second quarter, capping the series with a 4-yard touchdown run by Foreman.

The Panthers then got the ball back with 59 seconds left in the first half and were able to get downfield in a hurry after a 33-yard run by Hubbard.

The Panthers had 240 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the first half. Up 17 points coming out of halftime, the Panthers continued to lean on their running game throughout the second half.

Center Bradley Bozeman and guards Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett were dominant in the trenches throughout the game, opening up huge holes to run through. Overall, it was an epic performance for the offensive line, which bounced back significantly from its lame showing against Pittsburgh.

Foreman finished with 165 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, while Hubbard collected 125 rushing yards on 12 carries.

The offense collected a franchise record 320 total rushing yards and three touchdowns on 43 carries.

Passing Offense

B+. After biding their time with the passing game during the first three series, the Panthers finally pushed the ball through the air with a Darnold heave to wideout Terrace Marshall Jr.

The second-year wideout caught a jump-ball over the coverage of cornerback Jerry Jacobs. Jacobs, listed as 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, was no match for a leaping Marshall, who is listed as 6-2 and 200 pounds. Darnold put the pass on the money to Marshall.

Darnold finished the first half having thrown just 12 passes. He completed 8-of-12 passes for 124 yards and a 100.7 passer rating.

With a three-score lead in the second half, Darnold wasn’t really asked to anchor drives. He basically served as a side dish to the Panthers’ running game dominance.

Still, the quarterback had his opportunities for plays, including a 47-yard bomb to wideout DJ Moore. The pair connected on back-to-back plays, as they followed up the downfield heave with a 2-yard touchdown completion.

Darnold completed 15 of 22 passes overall (68.2%) for 250 yards and a touchdown with a 121.4 passer rating.

Darnold has yet to throw an interception on the season, and his four consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass and no interceptions is a career-long streak. Darnold went the entire game without registering a QB hit or sack.

Moore led the Panthers with five catches for 83 receiving yards and a touchdown. He now has six receiving touchdowns on the season, which is a new career high.

Rushing Defense

A. The Panthers did a nice job of attacking gaps to begin the game, making the Lions one-dimensional early on. During the first two drives, the Lions picked up just 16 yards on 10 carries. Goff also fumbled a red-zone snap that was recovered by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos.

The Lions were forced to move away from their running game as the Panthers piled on the points. Detroit finished with 17 carries for 45 yards.

The Panthers did an excellent job of making the Lions a pass-only offense from the jump. It was a huge bounce-back performance from the barrage of big runs allowed against the Steelers.

Passing Defense

B. The Lions put their foot on the gas early with the passing game.

Goff found wideout D.J. Chark for 39-yard strike on third-and-10 from the Detroit 40-yard line. Safety Jeremy Chinn got beat deep by Chark, and the defensive back got physical at the catch point on the downfield heave. Still, Chark came down with the catch.

That big gain put the Lions in scoring territory, and Goff then worked the quick game to get the down to the Carolina 4-yard line. He capped the drive with a touchdown toss to a wide open Shane Zylstra.

With limited success on the ground, the Lions pushed their passing game, which worked out well with mismatches in the first quarter. Chinn was consistently matched up with receivers to poor results. While Chinn was able to break up a pass on the second series, he was also whistled for a pass interference penalty.

Trailing by 24 points midway through the third quarter, the Lions needed a big play and got one when Goff hit wideout Khalif Raymond on a 56-yard bomb. That big play eventually led to another touchdown connection between Goff and Zylstra.

However, the Panthers defense was eventually able to settle in and attack Goff with a big lead built up by the offense. Defensive end Brian Burns produced two third-quarter sacks and Goff was hit seven times throughout the game.

Goff completed 25 of 42 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a 110.7 QB rating. He was sacked twice.

Chark, who caught a pair of deep balls, finished with four catches for 108 yards. Zylstra caught five passes for 26 yards and three touchdowns.

Special Teams

A. Kicker Eddy Piñeiro was kept busy on Saturday, as he made all four of his extra-point attempts. He also nailed three field goals — from 37, 40 and 36 yards — in the fourth quarter. Piñeiro has now made 17 consecutive field-goal attempts.

On the other hand, punter Johnny Hekker had a pretty casual Christmas Eve afternoon, as he punted just three times for 117 yards and an average of 39 yards per attempt.

Punt returner Shi Smith made a poor decision to field a bouncing ball on a punt inside the 20-yard line, but that didn’t end up costing the Panthers, as they still went on a field-goal scoring drive.

The Panthers did allow 30 yards per attempt on kick returns by running back Justin Jackson, who is among the best returners in the league.

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Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

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