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The game at Detroit isn’t one that a lot of Carolina Panthers fans circled on their calendar before the year began.

Detroit isn’t the same sort of draw as a possible road-trip destination as San Francisco, Boston, Chicago or Tampa – the other big cities the Panthers travel to or near during their first five road games of the year. And the Lions as a team don’t sport a lot of big stars. If you can name five current Lions other than quarterback Matthew Stafford, congratulations. (I said “current” Lions – Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson don’t count.)

But this game ultimately may have a lot of significance wholesale jerseys for the Panthers. I think these teams – both 3-1 at the moment – may both wind up with identical records at the end of the regular season, too. That means they may well bump heads in terms of playoff seeds (or even whether they make the playoffs at all).

So a win against Detroit would provide Carolina a crucial leg up in the race to the playoffs – which Detroit made last year, while Carolina didn’t. And a loss Sunday might bite the Panthers in early January, too.

It’s interesting that Detroit and Carolina have allowed exactly the same number of points per game this season (17.5 average).
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Linebacker Thomas Davis (rib injury) was nowhere close to 100 percent last week and was taken out of the game far more than usual. He also didn’t make much of a difference on the snaps he did play, which was rare. I assume Davis will play and be much better against Detroit – he told me he feels “a lot better.” If he’s not, though, it’s troubling.

Head coach Ron Rivera said this week that Stafford – in terms of pure arm strength – actually has a stronger arm than either Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Now that is a serious rocket.

The Panthers have a shot at taking a half-game lead over Atlanta (also 3-1) in the NFC South on Sunday because the Falcons have a bye. In fact it is the rare Sunday where Carolina is the only NFC South team playing – Tampa Bay lost to New England Thursday night and New Orleans also has a bye.

My Panthers predictions have been bad the past two weeks, as I missed both the team’s upset loss to New Orleans and upset victory at New England. That dropped me to 2-2 on the season. This week I have a feeling it that will be Carolina in a slight upset. My pick: Carolina 24, Detroit 20.

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