KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX (Ron Pitts, Tony Boselli, Charissa Thompson)
SERIES: 5th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead, 3-1. Panthers have won last three meetings. Last time the teams met, in 2005, backup quarterback Chris Weinke came in late and threw a three-yard touchdown to reserve receiver Ricky Proehl with 32 seconds left, giving Carolina a 21-20 victory at Ford Field.
PREDICTION: Panthers 31-14
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Daunte Culpepper has a start "under his belt right now," as Lions coach Rod Marinelli put it, and should only increase hit knowledge of the offense and timing with his receivers. But will it be enough to muster a respectable offense Sunday? That depends on the running game led by RB Kevin Smith, which is critical toward sustaining drives and keeping Detroit's porous defense off the field. ... This is a nightmare matchup for a Lions defense ranked 29th against the pass and 31st against the run. Carolina's balanced offense will prevent Detroit from at least being able to focus on making the Panthers one-dimensional. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme has a chance for a big rebound from last Sunday's four-interception effort. Detroit has a league-low two picks all season while allowing 29 passes of at least 20 yards.
KEY INJURIES: Lions: QB Dan Orlovsky (thumb) is out; C Dominic Raiola (hand) is not expected to play; S Dwight Smith (foot) is uncertain. Panthers: C Ryan Kalil (ankle) is unlikely to play; RB Jonathan Stewart (heel) will play.
FAST FACTS: The Lions have just one interception by a defensive back. ... The other two times the Panthers have started 7-2 (2003, 2005) they went on to reach the NFC Championship Game.
- DE Jared DeVries (hand) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday and likely will not play Sunday.
- WR Mike Furrey (concussion) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday but likely will play Sunday.
- QB Dan Orlovsky (hand) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday. He has decided to put off surgery and see how his broken thumb heals over the next two weeks.
- C Dominic Raiola (hand) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday and likely will not play Sunday.
- DT Cory Redding (groin) did not practice Wednesday but was limited Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- LB Ernie Sims (shoulder) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday but likely will play Sunday.
- S Dwight Smith (foot) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday. He has missed three games and will not comment on his health. He has seen a specialist. His status is unclear.
- CB Keith Smith (groin) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday. His status is unclear.
- DE Dewayne White (calf) did not practice Wednesday and Thursday and likely will not play Sunday.
- LT Jeff Backus (quad) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- DT Shaun Cody (ankle) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- DT Chuck Darby (calf) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- FB Jerome Felton (ankle) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- TE Casey Fitzsimmons (ribs) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- CB Brian Kelly (back) was limited Wednesday but practiced fully Thursday. He likely will play Sunday.
- TE John Owens (hamstring) was limited Wednesday and Thursday but likely will play Sunday.
- RB Jonathan Stewart practiced full for the second straight day and is expected to play Sunday against the Lions. He should put up decent numbers if he plays.
- RB DeAngelo Williams is coming off a career-high 140 yards rushing against Oakland and should put up great numbers against the Lions defense that ranks 31st against the run.
- WR Steve Smith has been very jovial in the locker room this week, so don't be surprised if he's a big part of the game plan this week against Detroit.
- DT Darwin Walker has been limited this week with neck soreness related to a car accident last month. It's still unclear if he makes it back this week.
- C Ryan Kalil (ankle) likely will miss Sunday's game after sitting out practice again Thursday.
- DE Julius Peppers now has seven sacks on the season and could be in for a big day Sunday against the Lions. In his last three meetings with Detroit, Peppers has five sacks and two forced fumbles.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Lions are ready to let rookie running back Kevin Smith carry the load.
"Oh, yeah," coach Rod Marinelli said, looking ahead to Sunday's game at Carolina. "We're putting that pack on his back. Let's go. He likes that."
Does he ever.
Smith, a third-round pick out of Central Florida, set a major college record with 450 carries last year. He racked up 2,567 rushing yards -- just 62 yards shy of the record set by Lions great Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State -- and 29 touchdowns.
"That's what I'm known for," Smith said. "I heat up as I go along. I would love to be able to do some great things with less carries. That would be a mean average. But it's just who I am, the type of running back I am."
Smith didn't get many carries the first half of the season. He started the first four games. Veteran Rudi Johnson started the next four. Within games, they alternated to varying degrees. The Lions often fell behind badly and abandoned the run.
"We tried to do some different things, but it just wasn't working," Johnson said. "I couldn't really get in a rhythm, and he couldn't really get in a rhythm. So the coaches made the decision, and that's cool."
Smith got a career-high 23 carries in Sunday's 38-14 loss to Jacksonville and gained a career-high 96 rushing yards, plus a touchdown.
"I think they were like, 'OK, we'll give this guy an opportunity, see what he does if we give him a workload. Can he handle it? Will he be healthy enough?'" Smith said. "I just try to do it with my actions. So hopefully I was able to show enough to be able to do some things that they liked."
To be sure, Smith had eight carries for 52 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, when the Lions were trailing badly and the Jaguars were sitting back in Cover-2.
But left tackle Jeff Backus was still impressed with the way he ran.
"When he was getting hit, he wasn't getting pushed backwards," Backus said. "He was moving piles, and he was falling forward, and he was hitting the holes hard. He was running fast. I think he kind of fed off the opportunity."
The Lions hope someday Smith will run well in the fourth quarter so they can close out a victory.
"In my mind, fourth quarter, people are wearing down, people are panicking, whether they're trying to get the ball back, I'm trying to go the distance," Smith said. "Hopefully somewhere in my career I'll get back to that, but right now I'm just trying to get better and help the offense out.
"I feel confident. With these games left, I'm taking advantage. I'm going to get better. I'm going to go into the offseason full-speed ahead. With these last games, I'm trying to get a 'W' every game and I'm trying to get better as a player."
Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said the Carolina Panthers are anxious to put last week's dismal offensive performance behind them and get to back to work Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
The Panthers managed just 17 points against the Oakland Raiders, seven of those coming on a 69-yard run by DeAngelo Williams.
The passing game was almost non-existent after Muhammad caught a 3-yard touchdown pass on the opening possession to give Carolina a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Jake Delhomme finished the game 7-for-12 for 72 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns (a passer rating of 12.3), and Steve Smith had just one catch for 9 yards.
However, the Panthers still won the game 17-6.
"I thought we ran the ball well, but we didn't execute well in the passing game," Muhammad said. "You are going to have games where you are not going to be perfect and not as efficient as you want to be. You are going to lack luster a little bit.
"But the sign of a great team is when the other two phases are able to pick up the slack. In specific, what happened? We didn't play well. And I think everyone can take ownership of that. Not just Jake, but myself, Steve, D.J. Hackett, the offensive line, everyone can (take) ownership on exactly what happened on that date. But the real sign of a great offense is how you respond to that. So we're very anxious to get back on the field again."