CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In case you've forgotten during a week in which quarterback Cam Newton insulted a female reporter and then apologized for his comment, the Carolina Panthers are playing the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
The Panthers haven't forgotten.
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart was asked what he thought about Newton's making light of Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue -- who asked Newton about the physicality of Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess on routes -- and responded, "We're playing the Detroit Lions."
It's an important game that could have playoff implications in the NFC by the end of the season.
Both teams are 3-1, tied for the best record in the NFC with the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. Both teams also are tied for their division lead: Carolina with Atlanta, and Detroit with Green Bay.
Both teams also have a loss in the NFC, which ultimately could be a tiebreaker depending on how everything else plays out.
In many ways, this game is bigger for Carolina than last week's 33-30 nonconference victory at the New England Patriots.
Here are five things to keep an eye on for the Panthers:
Cam Newton: No snappy lead-in line is needed here. No doubt, Newton has dealt with a major distraction this week. He lost a sponsor, Dannon Oikos -- and, in his words, "countless" fans for telling Rodrigue he thought it was funny to hear a female reporter talk about routes. He has also been limited in practice once again as he continues to rest his surgically repaired shoulder. But each week, he has worked more than the previous week. Newton will be facing a much tougher defense than he faced at New England, which ranked last in the NFL in total defense and points allowed (heading into Week 4). The Lions rank 17th defensively, but more importantly seventh against the run. If they successfully stuff the run, it'll again be up to Newton to be efficient in the passing game. The 2015 NFL MVP, Newton is off to a career-best 65.2 percent completion rate after the first four games. He'll need to maintain that pace to keep the chains moving against a tough Detroit front four. It would be a surprise to see Newton run eight times as he did a week ago, but look for him to keep the Lions off balance with his threat to run. The good news is that left tackle Matt Kalil, who did not practice Thursday or Friday, is expected to play. If not, Amini Silatolu will fill that role.
MVP Matt? Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown seven touchdowns and only one interception. As Carolina outside linebacker Thomas Davis said, Stafford is proving he can be a force without wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who retired after the 2015 season. It'll be important for the Panthers to get pressure up the middle and force Stafford off his mark. That's caused him to make costly mistakes in the past. Stafford has already been sacked 12 times and has been sacked an average of 42 times the past three seasons. Newton has been sacked an average of 35.6 times during that span.
Fun-Fun: Was last week's game a coming-out party for third-year wide receiver Devin Funchess? The Panthers hope so. With opponents focusing more on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and running back/Christian McCaffrey, Funchess is open more than ever. He came through with seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots. He'll need to capitalize against a Detroit defense that ranks 21st in the league in passing yards surrendered (263.3). This is a homecoming for Funchess, who grew up in the Detroit area. As Newton reminded, Funchess wants to win this one badly.
Get Stewart rolling: Jonathan Stewart is getting just under 15 carries per game as the offense has become more versatile with the addition of McCaffrey. Stewart averaged 3.6 yards per carry in Week 1 and 2.7 YPC in Week 2. But he averaged 4.8 and 4.9 YPC in the past two games. When he runs effectively, he keeps the pressure off Newton and helps establish the Panthers' game plan with McCaffrey. If Stewart can do that against the Lions, it would bode well for Carolina.
Extra Pep: Defensive end Julius Peppers (shoulder) is on the injury report again, but the 37-year-old likely Hall of Famer had two sacks against New England with a sore shoulder to increase his total to a team-best 4.5. He is expected to play Sunday. Peppers is playing like a 27-year-old, and the Panthers will need that to keep Stafford off balance. Peppers has faced the Lions more than anyone on Carolina's defense -- twice a year the past seven seasons as a member of the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. Of his 148 career sacks, 14 have come against Detroit. Pressure and sacks will be important given the loss of Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman for at least a month with a sprained knee. Jairus Byrd, his probable replacement, was signed Tuesday.