NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions are looking stout once again — just in time for a visit from the defending Super Bowl champions.
Matthew Stafford threw five touchdown passes, and the Lions rallied from a 17-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Carolina Panthers 49-35 on Sunday. Next up is Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving game, and this will be the biggest in recent memory for the Lions. The unbeaten Green Bay Packers are coming to town.
“We are definitely looking forward to it,” Suh said. “I love playing against Green Bay so it is time to go home, get some rest with the short turnaround.”
Detroit kept pace in the NFC playoff race and became the first team to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points. The Lions may be the toughest remaining opponent on Green Bay’s schedule, especially if Stafford has rediscovered his form after a terrible game at Chicago last weekend and a bad start Sunday.
Detroit had lost three of four following a 5-0 start, and the Lions (7-3) gifted Carolina (2-8) an early lead by turning the ball over on their first three possessions. But after throwing two first-quarter interceptions, Stafford went 25 of 28 the rest of the way.
He finished 28 of 36 for 335 yards and tied a career high with the five scoring passes.
“Offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff — everybody believes,” Stafford said. “We get in there at halftime and nobody’s pointing fingers. Everybody understands what we have to do to get back in the game — get stops on defense, score on offense and be sound on special teams — and we were able to do that in the second half.”
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 without a job. Smith was given a chance to return to his former team, and the move paid quick dividends for the Lions, who are waiting for running back Jahvid Best to recover from a concussion.
“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,” coach Jim Schwartz said.
Carolina’s Cam Newton threw four interceptions. Even while the Panthers were building a 24-7 lead in the first half, Suh and the Lions were doing a good job pressuring him. Newton went 22 of 38 for 280 yards with a touchdown.
After Detroit went ahead 35-27, Carolina tied it with 4:59 left in the game on Newton’s 6-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion pass to Steve Smith.
Stafford answered quickly with a 30-yard completion to Calvin Johnson, and his final touchdown pass of the game — a 7-yarder to Brandon Pettigrew — put Detroit ahead 42-35 with 2:32 left.
Newton then threw an interception on the Panthers’ first play after the kickoff. His tipped pass was picked off by Chris Harris, and Kevin Smith’s 19-yard scoring run sealed the win for Detroit.
“First half, we came out explosive — you know, like football’s supposed to be played,” Newton said. “Second half, (we) came out as if we were just trying to hold on and you can’t do that to a team like this, especially with an explosive offense like they have. The talent that they got on that defense — you have to be in attack mode the whole game.”
Newton ran for two touchdowns.
If the season ended today, the Lions would make the playoffs as a wild card, along with Chicago, which is tied for second with Detroit in the NFC North.
Stafford’s 3-yard scoring pass to Titus Young with 2:57 left in the second quarter made it 24-14, and after halftime, the Lions picked up where they’d left off. Stafford threw touchdown passes to Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler to give Detroit its first lead at 28-27.
“Big time must-win. It was a team we should beat,” center Dominic Raiola said. “It was disappointing after the first quarter not coming away with any points. It was a wake-up call for all of us. We cut down the turnovers and everybody executed. You watch the rest of that game, I don’t know how many negative plays we had.”
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 Best, who hasn’t played since Oct. 16. … Carolina is winless on the road this season. … Smith’s previous career high in yards rushing was 112 as a Detroit rookie in 2008 at Carolina.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)