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Panthers emerge as NFC contenders after escaping Lions’ comeback attempt

With wins over the Patriots, Lions, and surprising Bills, Carolina looks like the real deal.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After 19 disappointing games, Cam Newton finally looks like an MVP again. The Carolina quarterback, coming off a week where sexist comments got him deservedly dragged by the media, put together one of the finest performances of his career to lead the Panthers to a clutch victory over a persistent Detroit Lions team, 27-24.

Newton threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns — with nearly half that output going to tight end Ed Dickson -- to lead Carolina to its second straight road win over a 2016 playoff team. Through five weeks, the Panthers are now 4-1. With Newton back to the familiar form that led his team to Super Bowl 50, it’s easy to peg this team as a contender in a season where parity appears to rule the roost.

It wasn’t all positive, however. Carolina’s inability to run the ball in the fourth quarter turned a 17-point lead into a three-point advantage as Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey combined for 28 yards on 21 carries. Stuffed running plays led to third-and-long situations and five second-half drives of 11 yards or fewer.

Those quick turnarounds made a 17-point disadvantage manageable for a quarterback who typically excels in comeback scenarios.

Matthew Stafford showed why you can’t count out the Lions

Matthew Stafford is the league’s highest-paid athlete. On Sunday, he played like it. The veteran quarterback, his right leg held together with so much tape it made for passable mummy cosplay, led his Lions from a three-possession deficit into striking range.

With a stunted running game limited to just 50 yards, Stafford played through scrapes and pains to score 14 fourth quarter points and turn what looked like a blowout into a near-nailbiter. What’s more impressive is how he did it — with the game on the line, he turned to little-used targets like Jared Abbrederis (making his first two catches of the season) and Darren Fells to catch the Carolina defense offguard.

While he may have only thrown for 229 yards, his ability to protect the ball and find open targets when his team needed him the most told a story his stat line can’t reflect. It’s even more impressive when you consider the kind of pressure Carolina was able to drive into the pocket.

Stafford wound up sacked six times and pressured seemingly every other play. A relentless pass rush was partially to blame, but solid coverage downfield helped force the passer into uncomfortable moments and slow, painful scrambles. Despite those issues, he was still able to tab through his route progression quickly enough to find open, overlooked targets like Abbrederis and Fells. With the Panthers taking away his primary options, he was dynamic enough to adjust on the fly and lead his team back into contention.

Stafford’s opportunity to lead one last two-minute drill was wiped away by Newton, however. The Panthers, facing third-and-9 from their own 24-yard-line, iced the game with a 17-yard strike to Kelvin Benjamin. After three kneel-downs, Carolina stood atop the NFC, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Eagles — for now.

Sunday’s Lions-Panthers showdown was a preview of what the NFC side of the playoffs could look like in 2017; MVP-candidate quarterbacks dueling against gassed defenses as running games take a backseat. In a bleak slate of games, a contest that looked like a blowout in the third quarter quietly became a display between two playoff contenders. The question now is whether or not either team can develop the kind of running game — or pass defense — to make these fourth quarters a little less dramatic.