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Panthers-Browns: What we learned

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers kept believing and now it is almost hard to believe they have surged into first place in the NFC South.

“By the time December rolled around, we were a team ready to roll again,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said.

The Panthers moved to the verge of a playoff spot as Cam Newton’s 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart with 7:07 remaining propelled them to a 17-13 victory against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The first-place Panthers (6-8-1), who have won three games in a row, can win the NFC South by avenging a loss to the Falcons in next week’s finale in Atlanta.

“Regardless of what we’ve been through, we found a way to bounce back,” fullback Mike Tolbert said.

The Panthers enter a type of playoff mindset to end the regular season because it is a winner-take-all matchup with Atlanta.

“Tell (the guys) to smell the atmosphere,” veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We’re playing in December and I love playing in this role.”

Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel departed late in the first half with an injury and that left Newton, who is also a Heisman Trophy winner, as the player to come up with a clutch play.

Newton, who returned after a one-game absence with a back injury suffered in a Dec. 9 automobile wreck, completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards with one interception.

“It was somewhat tiring to go through so much,” Newton said of the ordeal involving the accident. “For me to come out of an accident like that, all praises go to God.”

Newton also gained 63 rushing yards on 12 carries, keeping the Cleveland defense out of sync.

“The run game makes him dynamic and he brought that to the table and he made something happen,” Browns defensive lineman Billy Winn said. “I honestly didn’t think he was going to run because of the whole car accident thing.”

Cleveland (7-8) lost its fourth game in a row.

The Browns snatched a 13-10 lead on Brian Hoyer’s 81-yard pass play to tight end Jordan Cameron with 9:59 left. It also marked Cleveland’s first touchdown in nine quarters.

Carolina bounced back with a go-ahead, seven-play drive of 66 yards that consumed less than three minutes.

“On the sideline, we believe,” offensive tackle Byron Bell said. “We went out there and drove the ball and we scored.”

On the first play after Carolina took a 17-13 lead, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman intercepted an underthrown Hoyer pass. But he fumbled it back on a play that netted Cleveland 9 yards.

After gaining a first down at the Carolina 47, the Browns lost yards on back-to-back plays and ended up punting. Carolina kept the ball the rest of the game.

Stewart rushed for 122 yards on 24 carries, including a game-clinching first-down pickup of 30 yards.

Garrett Hartley kicked field goals of 43 and 31 yards for the Browns. Hoyer completed 7 of 13 tosses for 134 yards.

The Browns were within 10-6 late in the third quarter after Winn’s interception of Newton’s pass at the Browns 44 preceded a Cleveland field goal.

Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, departed with a first-half hamstring injury. He was making his second career NFL start, and his first away from home.

Manziel, carrying the ball on what looked like a designed scramble, was drilled by Carolina safety Colin Jones and linebacker Luke Kuechly as he was running out of bounds at the 19-yard line.

Manziel said the injury actually occurred a play earlier when his foot slipped on a throw. One play later, he felt worse.

“I just felt like something that I hadn’t experienced before and felt I needed to get checked out,” he said. “You know, pretty frustrating.”

He took a 1-yard loss on the play, which occurred with 1:49 remaining in the first half.

Manziel was helped to the Browns sideline. Then he headed for additional treatment with a towel draped over his head as he went up a stadium tunnel.

Manziel, who completed 3 of 8 passes for 32 yards, had two carries for 3 yards. He said he could have re-entered the game in the second half.

“This was a learning process for me and regardless of what happens moving forward into this last game of the season, this has really been a great thing for me,” Manziel said. “I was a lot sharper (this week) and a lot more on top of this stuff.”

The Panthers built a 10-3 lead, with Newton’s 2-yard, third-down keeper with 1:55 remaining in the first half.

The highlight of the 12-play drive was a leaping catch by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on third down for 18 yards.

Any questions about Newton’s condition should have been answered when he carried the ball for two first downs among the game’s first three snaps.

“I just tried to take what the defense gave me,” Newton said. “I didn’t take any hits today.”

What the Panthers said:

“Unfortunately we didn’t play up to our abilities the whole season, but right now it is December and all that matters is winning this game (at Atlanta) and getting into the playoffs.” — Running back Jonathan Stewart as the Panthers ride a three-game winning streak into a winner-take-all finale.

What the Browns said:

“Everybody hates losing. I know myself, I hate losing and I’m a sore loser. We just have to re-evaluate ourselves and come in ready to work every day and put the pieces together.” — Running back Isaiah Crowell on the Browns’ four-game losing streak.

What we learned about the Panthers:

1. The Panthers are willing to allow quarterback Cam Newton to move the ball on the ground even amid a season that has involved injuries at the onset and during the late stages. Newton’s 63 rushing yards came at critical times against the Browns in his first game back after missing a game because of an automobile accident. He had 12 carries in the game, including a couple that picked up yardage for first downs on the game’s opening possession. By the end, his rushing output marked the third-largest total of the season. With Jonathan Stewart running strong as well, the Panthers have a diverse rushing attack.

2. The Panthers have allowed their defense to set the tone during the stretch run, much like it did throughout the 2013 season. The Panthers have held three consecutive opponents to less than 20 points during their three-game winning streak. Among the rewarding parts in the victory against Cleveland was that the defense had to implement two different plans because the scouting report was vastly different for starting quarterback Johnny Manziel compared to backup Brian Hoyer.

–QB Cam Newton said there was no definitive point during the week that he knew he would play against Cleveland after missing one game following an automobile accident in which he suffered two fractures in his lower back. He said he wasn’t on any special pain killers prior to the game, though he did come in earlier than normal for extra stretching. Newton completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown with one interception. He rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries. Next week’s finale against the Atlanta Falcons to decide the NFC South champion will be played in his hometown of Atlanta.

–TE Greg Olsen had a rather tame game by his standards with only three catches for 21 yards after several big outings in a row. He will need 19 receiving yards in the finale to secure the first 1,000-yard receiving season in his eight-year career. He’s a prime contender for the Pro Bowl and arguably Carolina’s most consistent performer on offense.

–LB A.J. Klein, who had worked his way into the starting lineup, was on the inactive list for the game against Cleveland with a knee injury that deemed him questionable going into the weekend. Klein, a second-year pro, has been used largely on first- and second-down situations in Carolina’s defensive alignment. LB Adarius Glanton drew the start in Klein’s spot and made five tackles.

What we learned about the Browns

1. The Browns are willing to experiment with some younger players and they are not all at high-profile spots on offense. The secondary might be at the forefront of the defensive scrutiny, with rookie defensive back Pierre Desir drawing a starting assignment at Carolina and matching up with touted rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. “I thought he made some plays,” coach Mike Pettine said of Desir. “To me, he had a better week (in practice) and we had a little bit more confidence in him.”

2. The Browns are still trying to figure out their quarterback situation and they have one more game to play before evaluating the setup during the offseason. Johnny Manziel has started two games, and in six quarters has yet to produce a touchdown drive. Brian Hoyer didn’t exactly light it up in his relief performance against Carolina. In a little more than one half, Hoyer threw for 134 yards — though 81 of those came on one play. “He made a couple of throws,” coach Mike Pettine said of Hoyer. “I know it was tough for him coming in cold and not getting the majority of the reps this week in practice.”

–QB Johnny Manziel could be in the mix to start the finale at Baltimore based on postgame comments regarding his condition. He said cramping of the hamstring was at the crux of the problem when he left with less than two minutes remaining in the first half at Carolina. He said he’s anxious for more opportunities. “I want to be out there with those guys and it’s frustrating when you can’t,” he said, pointing out he was available to return in the second half. Manziel finished 3 of 8 for 32 yards and ran twice for 3 yards.

–OL Ryan Seymour suffered a first-half hamstring injury at Carolina. His absence along the line was evident in the second half when the Browns had trouble containing the Panthers’ defensive front. QB Brian Hoyer was sacked three times in the second half.

–LB Scott Solomon was added to the active roster from the practice squad and he made an impact in the game against Carolina. His tackle of Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart for a loss of 2 yards forced the Panthers to punt on the final play of the third quarter. Solomon added a fourth-quarter sack and was credited with taking part in four tackles.


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