Panthers steal defeat from victory's jaws
DETROIT — Matthew Stafford shook off a couple of early interceptions, then went about leading the Detroit Lions to yet another memorable comeback.
The Lions quarterback matched a career-best with five touchdown passes, the final one a 7-yarder to Brandon Pettigrew with 2:32 left, and the Lions rallied for a 49-35 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"We were killing ourselves with turnovers," he said. "We knew that we'd be able to score in the second half if we could just keep our hands on the ball."
The Lions (7-3) scored five second-half touchdowns and became the first NFL team to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points.
"We can get as hot as any team in the league," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said.
The Panthers (2-8) led by 17 points in the second quarter, and had a 27-14 lead at halftime.
"This is a team loss," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "You play the second half the way we did, you're going to get beat."
Detroit now can look ahead to its next game, on Thanksgiving at home against undefeated Green Bay.
"Against Green Bay, you can't make the mistakes we did," Schwartz said.
Against Carolina, though, the Comeback Cats were able to overcome their early turnovers with a barrage of touchdown passes by Stafford. The Lions scored 21 straight points to take a 35-27 lead early in the fourth quarter, but couldn't put the game away until the final minutes.
Carolina tied it with 4:59 left on quarterback Cam Newton's 6-yard run and 2-point conversion pass to Steve Smith.
Stafford then started the game-winning drive with a 30-yard completion to Calvin Johnson and capped it with his sharp pass to Pettigrew in the end zone on a third-down play.
The Lions sealed the win when Newton threw an interception on the Panthers' first play after the ensuing kickoff and the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft finished with a season-high four interceptions.
Newton was 22 of 38 for 280 yards with a TD pass and also ran for two scores.
"It was as if we were just trying to hold on," Newton said. "You can't do that to a team like this."
Minnesota and Dallas found that out early this season. The Lions trailed the Vikings and Cowboys by 20-plus points on the road and came back to win each game during their 5-0 start.
Stafford, selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft, bounced back from his rough start Sunday to finish 28 of 36 for 335 yards.
"It's just like being a shooting guard," Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. "Once he hit a couple shots, you could see it in his eyes. He was in the huddle winking at guys."
It helped that Stafford had somebody to do something with handoffs.
Kevin Smith gave the Lions a surprising boost on the ground, running for a career-high 140 yards and scoring a career-best three touchdowns two weeks after he was sitting on a couch without a job when his former team gave him a shot.
"There are a lot of great stories in the NFL, but you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better one right now than Kevin Smith," Schwartz said.
When Detroit looked like it was trying to set up a field goal to take a 10-point lead, Smith took a handoff and ran 19 yards for a TD with two minutes left to finish off the Lions' 35-point second half.
"I knew that in this league, if you are available and you have talent, you'll get a chance," Smith said.
The Panthers were determined to make someone other than Johnson — with 11 TD catches coming in — beat them. Once Stafford figured that out, he flourished. He connected with five different targets — none named Johnson — for scores and settled for short passes instead of long ones.
Stafford had TD passes of 28 yards to Kevin Smith, 3 yards to Titus Young, 16 yards to Burleson, 17 yards to Tony Scheffler and 7 yards to Pettigrew.
"When Matt knows he can throw a short pass to one of our receivers or running backs, they can get yards after the catch, it gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback," Schwartz said.
The Lions turned the ball over on their first three drives, then pulled within three points when Smith ran for 43 yards and turned a screen pass into a 28-yard TD on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
Detroit quickly lost the momentum when Panthers rookie Kealoha Pilares returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a score to put Carolina up 17-7 early in the second quarter.
The Lions overcame eight penalties, some that extended drives for Carolina, to avoid a loss that would've hurt their playoff positioning.
Detroit had lost two straight at home and three of four overall and appeared to be headed toward another setback until Stafford started clicking and its defense began slowing down the Panthers.
Notes: Panthers TE Jeremy Shockey (ribs), LB Dan Connor (shoulder) and Lions DL Lawrence Jackson (thigh) and Willie Young (ankle) were inactive. ... Detroit previously ruled out RB Jahvid Best, who hasn't played since Oct. 16 because of a concussion. ... Carolina is winless on the road this season. ... Smith's previous career high in rushing yards was 112 as a Detroit rookie in 2008 at Carolina.Stafford-led Lions rally to beat Panthers 49-35