The Carolina Panthers played without their best pass-rusher, had the franchise’s all-time rushing leader on the bench with a leg injury and saw their franchise quarterback and his cracked ribs get sacked five times.
Yet, the Panthers will wake up Monday morning alone in first place in the NFC South.
A week after missing the first game of his career, Cam Newton returned Sunday and threw for 281 yards and a touchdown, leading the Panthers to a 24-7 win against Detroit on a day that began with a change of heart in the team’s handling of embattled defensive end Greg Hardy.
Carolina improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2008. The Lions dropped to 1-1.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he decided Sunday morning to deactivate Hardy, who is awaiting a jury trial on domestic violence charges.
Rivera’s decision – made in consultation with owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman – came two days after he said Hardy would start against the Lions.
But the team came under increased pressure to discipline Hardy after Minnesota deactivated running back Adrian Peterson, whoturned himself in on child abuse charges Saturday morning.
Panthers officials said for two months they would wait for the league to take disciplinary action after Hardy’s case was resolved. But circumstances changed during a week that began with the TMZ video of former Baltimore running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée in an elevator at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.
Rivera didn’t offer a timetable for Hardy’s return but indicated he could play again this season.
Hardy, who tied a single-season team record with 15 sacks in 2013, was found guilty by a district judge in July of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. He appealed for a jury trail, which is set for Nov. 17.
“This is a serious situation and set of circumstances, but we’re going to work things out and hopefully we get it right,” Rivera said.
“There’s a lot to be looked at and measured in a way. The climate has changed and we most certainly have to look at things the right way, because we really do have to get this right.”
Without Hardy, the Panthers were unable to get much pressure early in the game on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Carolina knocked Stafford down only once in the first half.
But the Panthers sacked Stafford four times in the fourth quarter as the defensive line was more aggressive with the Lions forced to throw to try to catch up. The Panthers had three takeaways and did not commit a turnover for the second week in a row.
“We’re not just one guy on the defensive line, and we played our butts off without (Hardy) out there,” said defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who had 1 1/2 sacks. “And we’ll continue to do so until he’s back or we figure out what’s going on.”
Defensive end Mario Addison led the Panthers with 2 1/2 sacks, and the secondary did a good job containing wide receiver Calvin Johnson and coming up with two of the three takeaways.
“I think that shows how much we’re a complete team. It’s not about one man around here,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “It’s all about us coming together, playing well as a team, offensively, defensively and on special teams.”
With running back DeAngelo Williams out with a thigh injury, the Panthers had a hard time establishing the running game against a Lions’ defense whose scheme was to make Newton beat them throwing the ball.
While Newton looked rusty at times, he completed 22 of 34 passes to finish with a passer rating of 100.2. Newton, who missed the Week 1 win at Tampa Bay, has said his surgically repaired ankle is still less than 100 percent.
Newton struggled to elude the Lions’ pass rush, and was sacked five times.
“He takes shots, but he keeps getting up,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “I don’t know if he gets enough credit for that. I think everyone is always talking about his athleticism and his arm and all that, but when it comes down to it he’s a tough guy.”
Newton was effective when he had time, connecting with seven receivers. Olsen snared six passes for 72 yards, and offseason additions Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery combined for nine receptions for 100 yards and a score.
Newton thought he played OK.
“I was kind of antsy early on and that comes from a lack of playing time,” he said. “But moving forward I’ll get my feet back under me, and as the game went on, I started feeling more and more comfortable and it showed.”
Stafford had a clean pocket in the first half, but a fumble by running back Joique Bell and two missed field goals by Nate Freese left the Lions with a 6-0 halftime deficit.
Detroit took a 7-6 lead in the third quarter, but Stafford became a target after the Panthers reclaimed the lead and began padding it.
“At that point they’re probably not too worried about us handing the ball off and running it, so they’re pinning their ears back,” Stafford said. “It’s a tough situation to be in on offense.”
Panthers players endured a tough week, bombarded by questions about the status of Hardy. Several said they sensed disciplinary action could be coming, but many didn’t know for sure until Rivera told them in the locker room before the game.
Davis, a team captain, was among the players who said they hope they get Hardy back.
“We feel like we definitely are a better team, a better defense with him on the field,” Davis said. “It’s one of those things that we just have to sit back and let the situation play itself out and see what happens.
“In the meantime, we have to continue to come to work.”