Coming off a tough, hard-fought NFC North slugfest in Minnesota last week, the Detroit Lions have to turn right around and host a big, physical, power football team in the 3-1 Carolina Panthers at Ford Field today. Things never seem to get any easier in the NFL from week to week.
Today's matchup could have playoff implications in the NFC down the road, so it's another big one.
Here are five things to look out for today.
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is one of the best in the game. He's not just good from a from a physical standpoint, but his ability to read an offense and quickly decipher how they plan to attack him and his defense sets him apart from others.
No other linebacker in the league makes as many audibles and changes to the defense pre-snap as Kuechly. When he sees an offense change the play, he usually has a good idea what they're trying to do, and has a counter of his own. It's the game within the game between he and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford later today.
Can Stafford catch Kuechly in a bad defense and exploit it? He might only get a couple of opportunities. It will be prudent he makes the most of those opportunities.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton became the first quarterback to reach 50 rushing touchdowns in a career last week. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, with speed, Newton is a load to bring down when he gets moving.
"It's holy heck (when Newton gets running down field)," Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead joked Thursday. "He's 6-5, 250, and is barreling down the field. For me, I don't shy away from contact, so I'm like, 'OK, I'm a man and you're a man, line it up,' but just seeing how he's fast, he can throw the ball, he can run the ball."
The Panthers are trying to limit the hits on Newton, who is now in his sixth season, but they also know they're a much more explosive offense when he's running. It's a fine line they're struggling with early on.
The Lions have their hands full with Newton on Sunday. First and foremost, they have to make him beat them throwing the football. That's their best shot at success.
**RETURN OF DAVIS
Starting rookie MIKE linebacker Jarrad Davis has missed the last two games with concussion and neck injuries. It seems like Davis could be back today against Carolina, barring some kind of setback.
Davis brings speed and sure tackling to the Lions' defense, two key factors in trying to contain Newton and the Panthers' rushing attack.
With Whitehead playing so well right now at the WILL, getting Davis back at the MIKE will only boost a Detroit defense that's playing terrific to start 2017.
The Lions gave up six sacks and eight total quarterback hits in a win over Minnesota last week. That's too much contact for Stafford to endure.
Sure, Minnesota has a great front seven, but that can't always be an excuse. Carolina also has a good front seven. It doesn't matter -- The Lions have to be better in that regard.
The Panthers rank in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks with 11. Veteran Julius Peppers has 4.5 on the year. Detroit has to do a much better job this week giving Stafford more time to try and attack Carolina's defense in the pass game.
Carolina starts two second-year cornerbacks, which could be a nice matchup for Detroit's veteran receivers, if Stafford has time to get them the football.
ENCORE FOR ABDULLAH
Starting running back Ameer Abdullah recorded career highs in carries (20) and yards (94) last week against a very good Minnesota defense. Abdullah was both elusive and tough, and fought tooth and nail for every extra yard last week. If not for rolling his ankle early in the fourth quarter, Abdullah would have no-doubt broke Detroit's streak of 55-straight games without a 100-yard rusher.
The Lions will need a similar effort from Abdullah against another very good run defense. Carolina has the seventh-best rushing defense in the league (86.3 ypg) right now.
The Lions have ran pretty well going on six quarters now. Can they keep it up?