DETROIT — The Comeback Cats have done it again.
Matthew Stafford threw five touchdown passes, the final one a 7-yarder to Brandon Pettigrew with 2:32 left, and the Detroit Lions rallied for a 49-35 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Lions (7-3) became the first NFL team since at least 1950 to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points, according to STATS, LLC. The Panthers (2-8) led 24-7 in the second quarter before Stafford got the Lions going
After Detroit went ahead 35-27 with 8:02 left in the fourth quarter, Carolina tied it 35-all with 4:59 left on quarterback Cam Newton’s 6-yard run and 2-point conversion pass to Steve Smith.
Stafford started the game-winning drive with a 30-yard completion to Calvin Johnson and capped it with his scoring pass to Pettigrew in the end zone.
The Lions sealed the win when Newton threw an interception on the Panthers’ first play after the kickoff. The No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this year threw a season-high four interceptions.
Newton was 22 of 38 for 280 yards with a TD pass and also ran for two scores.
Stafford, selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft, bounced back from throwing two interceptions in the first quarter and finished 28 of 36 for 335 yards. His five TD passes matched his career best.
Kevin Smith gave a surprising boost on the ground, running for a career-high 140 yards and scoring a career-best three touchdowns two weeks after he was sitting on a couch without a job.
When Detroit looked like it was trying to set up a field goal to take a 10-point lead, Smith took a handoff and scored on a 19-yard run with two minutes left to finish off the Lions’ 35-point second half.
The Panthers were determined to make someone other than Johnson — with 11 TD catches coming in — beat them. Once Stafford figured that out, he flourished. He connected with five different targets — none named Johnson — for scores and settled for short passes instead of long ones.
The Lions turned the ball over on their first three drives, then pulled within three points when Smith ran for 43 yards and turned a screen pass into a 28-yard TD on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
Detroit quickly lost the momentum when Panthers rookie Kealoha Pilares returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a score to put Carolina ahead 17-7 early in the second quarter.
The Lions overcame eight penalties and their early turnover to produce their third big comeback of the year. They trailed Minnesota and Dallas by 20-plus points on the road early in the season and won each time during their 5-0 start.
Detroit had lost two straight at home and three of four overall and appeared to be headed toward another setback until Stafford started clicking and its defense began slowing down the Panthers.
Carolina is winless on the road this season.