CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Jake Delhomme was eager to make up for the worst game of his career. He settled for handing off to his two dynamic running backs.
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams bolted through huge holes in a record-setting day on the ground for the Carolina Panthers, who needed that dominance to hold off the winless Detroit Lions 31-22 on Sunday.
The numbers were staggering. Stewart rushed for a career-high 130 yards and a touchdown. Williams added 120 yards and two more scores, marking the first time in the Panthers’ 14-year history that two backs went over 100 yards in the same game.
The Panthers (8-2) rushed for a team-record 264 yards and a whopping 8.3 yards per carry, enough to overcome miscues in other areas to stay a game ahead of Tampa Bay in the NFC South.
So after throwing four interceptions in an ugly win over Oakland a week earlier, Delhomme didn’t tire of handing off and watching his two running backs shred the Lions’ porous run defense.
“That’s the formula to win in this league,” said Delhomme, who completed 10 of 19 passes for 98 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. “When you can run it, you give your team a chance.”
And it was needed against the Lions (0-10), who came in as a two-touchdown underdog, yet had a chance to tie it midway through the fourth quarter in Daunte Culpepper’s second game post-retirement.
Returning to the scene of his career-changing knee injury three years ago, Culpepper got the Lions within 24-22 on his 1-yard plunge with 6:05 left. Culpepper called his own number again on the 2-point conversion try, but was stopped short of the goal line as Jon Beason grabbed his facemask. No penalty was called.
Culpepper, who was signed on Nov. 4 and started last week’s blowout loss to Jacksonville, was intercepted by Charles Godfrey on Detroit’s next possession, with no Detroit receiver in the area. Williams’ 4-yard TD run on the next play put it away.
“I turned upfield, so there is a little miscommunication there,” said Calvin Johnson, who caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Culpepper in the first half. “We’re going to work those kinks out the longer we’re together.”
Coach Rod Marinelli remained upbeat despite Detroit’s 17th loss in 18 games since starting 6-2 last season. Marinelli vehemently defended his players under tough questioning as the Lions try to avoid becoming the league’s first 0-16 team.
“Have we failed? Yes. Have I failed? Yes. Am I going to give up? No way,” Marinelli said. “Am I discouraged? No way. I’m not.”
The bright spot for Detroit was rookie Kevin Smith, who rushed for 112 yards. Culpepper threw for 207 yards and two interceptions.
Williams and Stewart often weren’t touched until they got into the secondary. Williams had a 56-yard TD run and Stewart a 22-yard TD as Carolina recovered from a 10-0 deficit to improve to 6-0 at home.
“Whether he’s out there or I’m out there, you don’t get a different look,” said Williams, who has gained 260 yards the last two weeks. “He can bash you up and if you let him break he can it 60 or 70 yards.”
Stewart, the rookie who had struggled with a heel injury, averaged 8.7 yards on 15 carries.
Detroit Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper (11) dives over the goal line for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008. The Panthers won 31-22. (AP)
That allowed Delhomme to be mostly a bystander a week after he was 7-for-27 with a 12.3 passer rating against Oakland.
Culpepper was playing his first regular-season game at Carolina since his career took a detour three years ago when he tore three knee ligaments on a hit from Chris Gamble while playing for Minnesota.
Culpepper was later traded to Miami, ended up in Oakland for a year, retired, then unretired last week to join the Lions after Dan Orlovsky injured his right hand.
The Panthers were botching coverages, missing tackles, and allowing Smith to run all over as Detroit took a 10-0 lead—the first time the Lions scored first in a game all season.
But the Lions couldn’t overcome the Stewart-Williams combination, something the Panthers hope to keep up when the schedule turns much tougher starting next week at Atlanta. Four of the Panthers’ last six games are on the road, with the Buccaneers and New York Giants also looming.
“I think we complement each other well,” Stewart said. “We’ve just got to keep pounding the ball.”
Jason Hanson tied his career high and Lions team record with a wind-aided 56-yard FG in the first half. He also passed Nick Lowery for eighth place on the NFL’s career scoring list with 1,714 points. … Panthers reserve G Jeremy Bridges was inactive after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat over the weekend.