Two teams clinging to slim playoff hopes square off Sunday when the Carolina Panthers host the Cleveland Browns. The Panthers are still alive in the weak NFC South, but they need some help in the form of New Orleans losing one of its last two games. Cleveland's playoff hopes are hanging by the flimsiest of threads — the Browns are two games back in the wild-card race with two to play, and five teams are ahead of them in the scramble for two berths.
If Carolina wins and the Saints lose to Atlanta this week, it would set up a winner-take-all matchup between the Panthers and Falcons next week, and for their part, the Panthers hope to have quarterback Cam Newton back after missing one game following a car accident. "He's not going to show any sign of weakness," Carolina coach Ron Rivera told reporters after Newton practiced with the first team Thursday, noting Newton is on track to start Sunday. "We always ask him to really be up front. … He's trying to help me make the right decision as we go forward." Newton's counterpart also will be under the microscope, as rookie Johnny Manziel is set to make his second career start for Cleveland.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Panthers -3.5. O/U: 39.5.
ABOUT THE BROWNS (7-7): Manziel's first start was nothing short of a disaster as he went 10-of-18 for 80 yards with two interceptions in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati, Cleveland's third straight defeat. Ironically, that performance likely earned him two more starts by effectively killing the Browns' playoff hopes, and the extra snaps allow him a leg up on grabbing the starting job next season. Cleveland's defense has been opportunistic and has done a nice job of stopping the pass, but the Browns have been gashed for 137.6 rushing yards per game, second-most in the league.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (5-8-1): If Newton is able to return, he'll have the benefit of a resurgent ground game led by Jonathan Stewart, who has rushed for 313 yards in the past three games. If Newton can't go, backup Derek Anderson has proven capable when called upon, going 2-0 as a starter and throwing five TDs against no interceptions. Carolina's defense has turned in impressive efforts in back-to-back wins and looks to continue is late-season turnaround against a Manziel-led offense that was dreadful a week ago.
1. The Browns have won four games in which they have trailed in the fourth quarter, tied for the most in the league.
2. Newton needs 188 passing yards for his fourth straight 3,000-yard season.
3. Cleveland has recorded at least one takeaway in 10 straight games and ranks third in the league with 27 this season.
PREDICTION: Panthers 20, Browns 13