SERIES HISTORY: 6th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 4-1. The Browns beat Carolina 24-23 on Nov. 28, 2010, behind 131 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns by Peyton Hillis. John Kasay had a chance to win the game for the Panthers on the final play, but his 42-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers are bound to mix things up on defense with head coach Ron Rivera taking over the play-calling for that side. Rivera has stressed an aggressive approach and he has been most concerned with some deficiencies on the back end. Whatever Carolina can do to get linebacker Luke Kuechly in more spots to make an impact is bound to be a priority.
The offense hasn't solved some of its red-zone snags and, with quarterback Cam Newton clearly dealing with some shoulder soreness, that's likely to impact some of the pass packages that are used. Running back Christian McCaffrey is shaping up as perhaps becoming only the sixth 1,000-yard rusher for the Panthers in team history. He has 863 rushing yards after his 106-yard outing at Tampa Bay. Despite McCaffrey's success, that aspect was nearly abandoned at times last weekend at Tampa Bay. The Panthers will have Chandler Catanzaro kicking with Graham Gano out.
The Browns want to get back to a balanced offense against Carolina. Rookie running back Nick Chubb carried only nine times for 31 yards against the Texans. Both were his lowest numbers since becoming the starter Oct. 21 in Tampa Bay. Keeping Chubb involved on the ground means getting off to a faster start on Sunday. The Browns trailed the Texans 23-0 at halftime. Chubb carried four times for three yards in the second half.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--OUT: K Graham Gano (left knee), G Amini Silatolu (knee/injured reserve)
--QUESTIONABLE: S Colin Jones (illness)
--OUT: T Austin Corbett (foot), CB Denzel Ward (concussion)
--QUESTIONABLE: CB Phillip Gaines (knee), DT Larry Ogunjobi (biceps), C JC Tretter (ankle)
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Browns LBs vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. Not including QB Cam Newton, McCaffrey is the busiest man in Carolina's offense. He leads the Panthers with 163 carries and 80 receptions with a total of 11 touchdowns. He is a threat to touch the ball on every play, so the linebackers will have to be on high alert.
--Panthers T Taylor Moton vs. Browns DE Myles Garrett. The Panthers haven't done a great job protecting QB Cam Newton in recent weeks and the challenge will be a big one this week. There should be stability on the offensive line after some issues earlier this season, but the group hasn't always meshed. The Panthers gave up four sacks last week at Tampa Bay. Garrett has 11.5 sacks this season and he's cranking up a special season in his second year in in the league. Garrett also has forced three fumbles this season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers WR Curtis Samuel. Samuel has been a play-maker at times and he returns to the state where he was a standout in college for Ohio State. His consistency level has wavered considerably, but he's considered the big-play threat the Panthers need to jump-start some of their offensive woes. Samuel has six touchdowns on 31 total offensive plays this season, though he wasn't overly involved in the game plan last week at Tampa Bay.
FAST FACTS: PANTHERS QB CAM NEWTON passed for 300 yards & 2 TDs last week. Has 2+ pass TDs & 100+ rating in 6 of his past 7. Has 13 TD passes vs. 2 INTs for 107.4 rating & 5 rush TDs in his past 6 vs. AFC. ... RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY had 161 scrimmage yards (106 rush, 55 rec.) & TD catch in Week 13. Is 1st player in NFL history with 50+ rush yards & 50+ rec. yards in 5 consecutive games. In his past 6, has 859 scrimmage yards (143.2 per game) & 10 TDs (5 rush, 5 rec.). Since Week 8, leads NFL with 859 scrimmage yards & 10 TDs. ... WR CURTIS SAMUEL had career-high 6 receptions & team-high 88 rec. yards in Week 13. Has 4 TDs (3 rec., 1 rush) in his past 5. ... LB LUKE KUECHLY has 100+ tackles in all 7 career seasons. Is 1 of 3 in NFL (DARIUS LEONARD & BLAKE MARTINEZ) with 100+ tackles (100) & 2+ sacks (2) this season. ... DT KAWANN SHORT had sack in Week 13. Aims for his 3rd in row with TFL. ... CB DONTE JACKSON leads NFL rookies with 4 INTs. ... BROWNS QB BAKER MAYFIELD (rookie) passed for career-high 397 yards last week. His 397 pass yards are most by rookie in single game in franchise history. Leads NFL rookies with 2,639 pass yards, 18 TD passes & 91.1 rating. Is averaging 263.9 pass yards per game, 2nd-highest among rookie QBs (ANDREW LUCK, 273.4) since 1970 (min. 200 att.). ... RB NICK CHUBB (rookie) had 72 scrimmage yards (41 rec., 31 rush) last week. ... RB DUKE JOHNSON JR. has 241 scrimmage yards (80.3 per game) with 3 rec. TDs in his past 3 at home. Aims for his 3rd in row at home with TD catch. ... WR JARVIS LANDRY led team with 6 catches & 103 rec. yards last week. ... WR RASHARD HIGGINS had TD catch in Week 13. ... DE MYLES GARRETT had 1.5 sacks last week. Aims for his 3rd in row with sack. Ties for 2nd in AFC with 11.5 sacks. ... LB JOE SCHOBERT had 11 tackles & 0.5 sack last week. ... CB DENZEL WARD ranks 2nd among NFL rookies with 11 PD & ties for 2nd with 3 INTs.
PREDICTION: This might've been an easy call a month ago, but the Panthers are in disarray and near-freezing temps along the shores of Lake Erie won't help them. The slide continues for Carolina.
OUR PICK: Browns, 23-20