CLEVELAND -- In a season of struggles, rarely has the flight of the football on the final snap played any role in the outcome of a Carolina Panthers game.
That uncommon scenario did develop Sunday, yet the game still left the Panthers with an all-too-common feeling.
Carolina drove 71 yards in less than a minute without the benefit of a timeout to get in field goal range, but John Kasay's kick from 42 yards bounded off the left upright, leaving the Cleveland Browns to celebrate a 24-23 victory.
"I thought it showed great heart and great effort and great execution to get in position," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "Unfortunately, it's been like Groundhog Day with the results; we ended up short in the end."
The result was painfully familiar for the Panthers (1-10), but the path to the bitter end was decidedly different.
In previous games, a 14-point deficit would have meant the game was as good as over, but a Carolina team averaging fewer than 12 points scored 16 unanswered points to turn a 21-7 deficit upside down and claim a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter.
Longtime Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, however, directed his new team into position for Phil Dawson's 41-yard field goal with 2:42 left, and Kasay couldn't answer back with what would have been his fourth field goal of the day.
"I don't know what I would do differently," Kasay said of the kick. "I hit it exactly how I wanted to."
It qualified as a minor miracle – and a sign of the Panthers' progress – that Kasay even had such an opportunity. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, despite making one of his few mistakes with an interception after the Browns had retaken the lead, got one more shot, albeit a long shot.
After the defense stuffed running back Peyton Hillis on third down – something it rarely did on a day when Hillis rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns – Carolina took over at its own 5-yard line with 59 seconds to go.
The Panthers had only reached the 16 when a pressured Clausen dumped the ball off to running back Mike Goodson near the line of scrimmage, and Goodson weaved his way across the field and through the defense for a 32-yard gain.
The winding play itself took 16 seconds, and by the time Clausen spiked the ball to stop the clock, just 12 seconds remained. That's when a pair of rookies hooked up, with Clausen lofting a pass toward the sideline that Brandon LaFell dove for and came up with, sliding out of bounds for a 28-yard gain to the Browns' 24-yard line with five seconds left.
"It was a great drive," said Clausen, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 195 yards. "Goody made a play, then after we spiked it, we needed to throw it down the sideline and get out of bounds to have a chance at a field goal. Brandon made a heck of a catch that put us in position to win the game."
Such an end-of-game scenario seemed unlikely early. The Panthers did start strong, scoring their lone first-quarter touchdown of the season on the opening drive when Goodson (55 yards rushing, 81 yards receiving) ripped through a hole for a 26-yard score.
The Panthers, however, couldn't come up with so much as a first down on their next three possessions, and the defense couldn't come up with a way to slow Hillis.
The man with tailback moves and fullback size scored touchdowns on three of the Browns' first four drives to help Cleveland build a 21-7 lead. It could have been four touchdowns in four drives if Panthers linebacker Jason Williams – making his first start – hadn't stripped Browns tight end Evan Moore inside the 5 and recovered the fumble.
"He's a big one," said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of Hillis. "I played him in college, and he played fullback in college. He's a big guy. He's strong and runs tough. He's hard to bring down."
But following Hillis' third score, the defense mostly handled Hillis while dogging Delhomme. Kasay booted field goals of 43 and 42 yards before halftime to pull Carolina within 21-13, then Jon Beason and Munnerlyn picked off Delhomme on the first two drives of the second half.
Kasay missed a 46-yard field goal following Beason's pick but simply lined up for a PAT after Munnerlyn took his 37 yards untouched to pull the Panthers within 21-20.
The score remained there until Kasay gave the Panthers the lead with a 43-yarder midway through the fourth quarter, set up by a Jonathan Stewart 31-yard run. Stewart, returning from a two-game absence caused by a concussion, rushed for 98 yards to help the team churn out a season-high 151.
"Everybody played hard, and that's all you can ask for. Somebody has to lose," Goodson said. "If we had come out here and didn't play hard, then you'd have something to be mad about. But when you play hard like that, there's really nothing you can be mad about."