The Detroit Lions continue their playoff push on Christmas Eve against the Carolina Panthers. The Lions enter the game after knocking off the Jets in a defensive slugfest. On the opposite sideline, the Panthers are coming off a disappointing loss to the Steelers, but somehow, they are still alive in the NFC South division race at 5-9. Let's look into the numbers to see how the Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers match up.
Detroit's offensive vs. Carolina's defense
Detroit Lions' Pass Offense vs Carolina Panthers' Pass Defense
The Panthers are slightly above average when it comes to their pass defense. They are in the league's top half in both yards per game (13th, 211.4) and yards per attempt (6.3). They have done a good job limiting yards given up, but according to Football Outsider's DVOA, they are in the bottom half of the league ranking 21st. There are several factors for the discrepancy, but likely the largest one is DVOA factors in strength of schedule, and the Panthers have avoided explosive passing attacks for the most part.
Another factor is the Panthers' lack of big plays. They are around the league average with 10 interceptions, but they also struggle at creating negative plays in the pass. Brian Burns is a stud with 10.5 sacks on the year, but the rest of the team has not done their part. Overall, they only average 2.1 sacks a game which is good for 23rd.
Looking at all stats, this matchup should favor the Lions. The Lions are top 10 in passing yards (8th), yards per attempt (9th), and interceptions (3rd least). This correlates almost perfectly with their passing DVOA of 8th in the league. This also lines up with the eye test for what Jared Goff and the Lions' offense have been doing. They have been efficient and explosive while limiting negative plays evidenced by Goff's 6-game interception-less streak and their league-best 1.4 sacks given up per game.
Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers: Advantage Lions' pass offense
Detroit Lions' Run Offense vs Carolina Panthers' Defense
The Panthers' run defense is also below average. They have given up 130 yards per game which is the 22nd most in the league. This number is slightly inflated as they have been trailing in most games and give up 4.4 yards per carry (18th). DVOA also views Carolina in that same range as their run defense is ranked 21st in the league.
The Panthers' defense hasn't been that bad, but they have given up some huge games on the ground. Joe Mixon put up a ridiculous stat line of 153 yards and 4 touchdowns on 7 yards per carry. The 49ers' Jeff Wilson and the Browns Nick Chubb also put up over 6 yards a carry on their way to big 120+ yard games. So despite their stats, the Panthers could provide an opportunity for the Lions' run game to return to form.
Lately, the Lions' run game has not been great. D'Andre Swift is looking better, but he is still searching for his form from the start of the year. Jamaal Williams is still effective in short yardage, but he hasn't averaged over four yards a carry in a game since Week 8. Overall, the Lions' run game looks average with yards, yards per attempt, and DVOA all ranking between 12 and 15. Even at average, the Lions should have a slight advantage over an inconsistent Panthers rush defense.
Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers: slight advantage Lions' rush offense
Detroit's defense vs Carolina's offense
Detroit Lions Pass Defense' vs Carolina Panthers' Pass Offense
The Panthers have had a revolving door at quarterback for good reason. With a passing attack ranked 30th in DVOA, the Panthers have needed to shake up the offense. After starting the season with Baker Mayfield, the Panthers switched to XFL MVP PJ Walker. Walker also struggled, so the Panthers cut Mayfield and turned to Sam Darnold.
With all due respect to Darnold, making the change to him midseason is not a promising sign for a passing attack. In the three games with Darnold, the Panthers have actually gotten worse from a yardage standpoint. On the season, the Panthers are 30th in passing yards per game with only 170.6, but with Darnold, the Panthers have averaged a measly 153 yards over three weeks.
This all does not fall on the mediocre quarterbacks. The Panthers also lack weapons. DJ Moore is a talented, proven receiver, but around him, Terrace Marshall, Shi Smith, and Ian Thomas don't inspire much fear in defenses. On the bright side, the offensive line has been average. They really don't have any weak spots on the line and give up only 2.3 sacks a game (13th). When the highlight of the pass offense is an average offensive line, it paints a bleak picture of the Panthers' pass offense.
The Lions' pass defense has improved over the span of the season, but it is still a major weakness and one of the weaker groups in the league. The Lions have given up 265 yards a game after giving up 300+ yards 5 times already. Their secondary is the main culprit for the struggles. For the most part, they have struggled as a group over the season allowing receivers to put up some big games.
However, even with the secondary's struggles, the pass defense has improved due to the defensive line. Rookies Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston have led the charge of getting to the quarterback with the help of experienced veterans Romeo Okwara and John Cominsky chipping in.
The Lions' pass defense is not good, but they are trending upward toward the league average. On the other hand, the Panthers' pass offense has stunk all year and doesn't show any signs of improvement. The secondary will have a big chance to play well and gain some confidence against one of the worst passing teams in the league.
Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers: Advantage Lions passing defense
Detroit Lions Run Defense' vs Carolina Panthers' Run Offense
With such a bad passing attack, the Panthers try to run the ball often. They run the ball on 47.6 percent of plays which is the 8th most in the league despite trailing in most of the games they have played. Even though they run the ball frequently, it does not mean they are an elite rushing team.
With Chuba Hubbard and D'Onta Foreman carrying the load, the Panthers are exactly league average with a 4.4 yard per carry (16th) and 117.5 yards a game (17th). Like their rush defense, it has been inconsistent. They have had 6 games where they rushed for under 70 yards. Last week against the Steelers, they only mustered 21 yards on 1.3 yards a carry. Without the threat of a passing game, defenses can key on the run game and effectively stifle it.
The Lions' rush defense has grown by leaps and bounds, and now is a legitimate strength of the team. They have not allowed a team to rush over 100 yards in their past three games and have shut down lead-backs. Even elite rushers like Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley failed to get anything going. The overall numbers are deceptive due to the slow start (26th in yards and yards per carry), but the run defense led by Isaiah Buggs and Alim McNeill has become one of the best in the league.
This is another matchup where the Lions should flex their muscles. Their front 7 has been on a tear, getting into the backfield and making plays. The lack of a passing game will only make that easier and allow the linebackers to really shut down the run.
Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers: Advantage Lions run defense
Game outlook: Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers
On paper, this matchup heavily favors the Lions. On both sides of the ball, the Lions are better in both the run and pass. But, there is a reason this game is not played on paper. The Panthers have been playing hard for their interim coach, Steve Wilks, and they still are playing with playoff hopes. In the NFL, anything can happen especially to the Lions. Winning this game, on the road, against a team with playoff aspirations would be another big step towards abolishing the “Same Old Lions”, and changing the expectations of the team, fan base, and national audience.
Detroit Lions vs Carolina Panthers: Overall advantage Detroit Lions
Team rankings from Team Rankings.com