CLEVELAND -- The Panthers sought to get back on track in Cleveland after four straight defeats, but a costly turn of events in the final minutes gave the Browns a 26-20 victory and Carolina its fifth consecutive loss.
With under nine minutes to go, quarterback Cam Newton and the offense ate away at the game clock and got into the red zone after a 24-yard Newton completion to wide receiver Jarius Wright. But the Panthers couldn't punch it in despite three chances from the 3. The defense forced a punt with 1:04 to go, but Browns safety Damarious Randall intercepted a pass intended for wideout Devin Funchess to end the game.
"We had some opportunities. You look at the chances we had offensively, defensively, and you have a chance to impact it by making a play," head coach Ron Rivera said. "This game comes down to four or five plays. Whether you make 'em or you don't, that's the impact."
Newton finished 26-of-42 for 265 yards and one interception but wasn't responsible for a touchdown for the first time since Week 1. Running back Christian McCaffrey's 16 carries gave him 63 rushing yards and both of the Panthers touchdowns. After Greg Olsen was lost for the rest of the year in Week 13, rookie tight end Ian Thomas got his first start since Week 5 and caught nine passes for 77 yards.
For the defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly led the team with 11 tackles and forced two fumbles - both recovered by fellow linebacker Thomas Davis. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn earned his first sack of the season; it was the first sack Cleveland had given up since Week 9.
Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield tallied 238 passing yards and a touchdown, completing 18 of his 22 attempts. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry added 57 receiving yards and a touchdown to go along with 54 rushing yards and a score. Rookie running back Nick Chubb continued his solid season, rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Defensive end Myles Garrett chipped in a sack and five tackles for the defense.
A 34-yard field goal by Panthers kicker Chandler Catanzaro - replacing the injured Graham Gano - put Carolina up 20-17 midway through the third quarter. As the frame neared its end, the defense looked poised to force a Cleveland three-and-out, but a costly defensive holding penalty on third-and-3 gifted the Browns a first down to begin the fourth.
Moments later, Landry exploded for a 51-yard rush to put the Browns on the Carolina 4. Chubb bulldozed the remainder to give Cleveland its first lead of the contest. A defensive offsides forced Browns kicker Greg Joseph to re-do the extra point, but the attempt hit off the left upright to keep Carolina within three.
Three straight Newton incompletions gave the Browns another scoring opportunity, and they capitalized with a 41-yard Joseph field goal to go up six, which would end up being the deciding margin.
Neither team could gain the upper hand early, trading touchdown drives in the first quarter. On the second play of the game, Newton, who has been recently dealing with shoulder troubles, set the tone with a 25-yard completion to wideout Curtis Samuel. A few plays later, McCaffrey ended the 10-play, 65-yard series with a 4-yard run to put the Panthers on the board first.
On Cleveland's first offensive snap, Mayfield successfully tested Carolina's secondary, connecting with receiver Breshad Perriman for a 66-yard bomb. Two plays later, a Landry jet sweep from 3 yards out gave the Browns their first points.
On the Browns' second drive, Kuechly forced a fumble by wideout Rashard Higgins after a 4-yard pass from Mayfield. Davis recovered on the Cleveland 12, giving the offense great field position to end the first quarter.
Carolina took a 14-7 lead to start the second quarter after a 1-yard McCaffrey rush off the takeaway, but the advantage wouldn't last long. Mayfield would again challenge the defense, hitting Landry for a huge 51-yard touchdown pass.
Rookie wideout DJ Moore responded for the Panthers with a 40-yard catch-and-run on the ensuing drive to help set up a 30-yard Catanzaro field goal. Two Mayfield completions for a combined 43 yards got Cleveland in scoring position at the two-minute warning. The Panthers defense prevented a TD, but Joseph nailed a 49-yarder to tie the game 17-17.
Next on the schedule for the Panthers is a Monday night showdown with the division rival Saints (11-2).