Offensive key: In the Cleveland cold and with quarterback Cam Newton managing shoulder soreness, this is an optimal week to ride running back Christian McCaffrey, who has been rolling as of late. McCaffrey only had 10 carries last week as Carolina was in comeback mode against the Bucs, yet he still managed 106 yards on the ground. The Browns are giving up 136.4 rushing yards per game, so they're vulnerable. And the less reliant Carolina has to be on Newton's arm the better.
Defensive key: Carolina has fallen to the 23rd in the league in third down efficiency, and the last four games haven't been kind to the Panthers on the "money" down. During that span, opposing quarterbacks are 26-of-39 with five touchdown tosses and zero interceptions for a 143.5 passer rating on third down. The Panthers have done well to create third-and-longs, but they have to start taking advantage in those situations. For what it's worth, the Browns offense is 28th in third-down efficiency.
Gutsy guess: Luke Kuechly is back in his native Ohio and the All-Pro will be staring down a rookie quarterback. "They have a guy in the middle who is going to know our plays just as well as we know them," Baker Mayfield told reporters this week. I predict Kuechly nabs his first interception since Week 3 when the Panthers beat the other NFL team from Ohio.
Offensive key: A good run game is a quarterback's best friend, but of course in Carolina's case, the quarterback often is a part of that run game. With concerns about Newton's throwing shoulder ramping up of late, fans will be more attuned than ever to how Newton handles hits, be it inside or outside the pocket. But even if Newton's health wasn't on the radar, keeping him clean against an aggressive Cleveland defense would be crucial. The offensive line must keep Newton out of harm's way to keep Carolina in contention for a must-win.
Defensive key: Taking the quarterback to the ground has been a huge part of this Panthers' defense over the years, but it's been a below-average year in that regard. Meanwhile, the Browns have been above average when it comes to protecting the quarterback. Baker Mayfield hasn't been sacked for three games running, yet he threw three interceptions last time out - the result of pass-rush pressure. I wouldn't go so far as say that pressuring but not sacking an inexperienced quarterback could be a blessing in disguise in the form of takeaway opportunities, but the Panthers want to make Mayfield make decisions in uncomfortable settings.
Gutsy guess: Mayfield hasn't been sacked in three games and Julius Peppers hasn't recorded a sack in two games. I want to say Peppers gets two sacks to move into third place on the NFL's all-time list, but let's say he gets one and saves the second one for the home folks next week.
Offensive key: Newton cruised through the first two months of the season, throwing only four interceptions. He’s tossed seven, including at least one every week, during this four-game skid. The Browns give up a ton of yards through the air, but they also make a lot of plays. Only the Bears (21) and Dolphins (19) have more than Cleveland's 14 picks. So Newton has to take better care of the ball than he has this past month.
Defensive key: In their six wins, the Panthers have 14 takeaways. In their six losses, they have two. That is all.
Gutsy guess: New kicker Chandler Catanzaro has hit two sizable field goals against Cleveland: a 57-yarder last year for the Jets and 59-yarder in October with the Buccaneers. That was the longest overtime field goal in NFL history. Sure, Panthers fans feel down on their luck these days, but that’s nothing compared to the Browns’ history. So Catanzaro hitting another game-winner with a different team two days after signing with his new team would be very much in line with that history.
Carolina is 4-1 against Cleveland all-time.