What to watch: Panthers at Browns

Quarterback Jake Delhomme is gone from Carolina but not forgotten.

And when the Panthers visit Delhomme's new team, the Cleveland Browns, on Sunday, Delhomme intends to remind his old team of the good ol' days.

"Any competitor, when you come back, you want to show the guys that you left, 'I can compete. I'm here,'" Panthers running back Mike Goodson said. "He's a competitor. I know he'll be ready to go."

If the Panthers face the Delhomme that led them to the Super Bowl, then Carolina will be in trouble. If they face the Delhomme that contributed to Carolina's decision to release him following the 2009 season, Cleveland could be in trouble.

Delhomme struggled mightily with turnovers last season, tossing a career-high 18 interceptions against just eight touchdown passes in 11 games. He began this season as the Browns' starter but was lost to an ankle injury after the first game, playing again only in Week 5 before returning to the fold this week with rookie Colt McCoy hobbled by an ankle injury.

How the Panthers deal with Delhomme from an emotional standpoint but also from an execution standpoint could be crucial to Sunday's outcome.

"We can't just go on his tendencies because he knows that we know," Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall said. "He could show us his tendencies but then do something else. Jake is smart."

Here are some other keys to Sunday's matchup.

THE OTHER QUARTERBACK: While many eyes on both sidelines will be on Delhomme, the play of the Panthers' new quarterbacks will be crucial.

Rookie Jimmy Clausen is expected to return to the lineup for Carolina following a one-game absence, looking to pick up where he left off before suffering a concussion.

Clausen looked like an improved quarterback Nov. 14 at Tampa Bay, completing multiple passes downfield to multiple targets, an effort that still came up short.

For the Panthers to have a shot at their first road victory, facing a Cleveland defense that ranks 10th in the NFL in points allowed (20.6 per game), Clausen needs to look more like he did against the Buccaneers and less like he did for much of his three-game run as starter earlier in the year.


RUNNING TO DAYLIGHT: Panthers running back Mike Goodson is the happy-go-lucky sort, and he has to be happy about how he's taken advantage of his opportunity in the wake of bad-luck injuries that hit the team.

"I'm enjoying it," Goodson said. "I just want to keep it up."

The Panthers need him to keep it up.

Goodson produced the Panthers' first two 100-yard rushing games of the season in his first two NFL starts, a big part of the reason the Panthers have been in contention in their last two games until the final minutes.

Goodson believes his speedy style should serve him well against the Browns.

"They're real physical up front, and their linebackers flow really fast," he said. "Hopefully, we can get them flowing and overplaying a bit, and we can make some holes."

Goodson may well have some help Sunday. Jonathan Stewart, who missed Goodson's 100-yard games while recovering from a severe concussion, practiced all week.


THE OTHER RUNNING BACK: Goodson's recent success has given the Panthers a boost, something Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis has been doing all year for the Browns.

Hillis, acquired from the Denver Broncos in an offseason trade, has been a beast. He has scored a touchdown in all but one game this season –  with eight rushing touchdowns that rank him fourth in the NFL as well as two receiving touchdowns – and he's 12th in the league with 77.4 rushing yards per game.

When the Browns stunned New England, Hillis rumbled for 184 yards. When they nearly knocked off Baltimore, he gained 144 yards – making him the only back to top the century mark against the Ravens this season before Goodson joined him last week.

Hillis is a bruising runner with sneaky speed. Simply put, he's a handful, so it's crucial that a Carolina defense that has sunk to the bottom 10 in the NFL in rushing defense contain the player who has quickly become Cleveland's top weapon.


WHO CARES?: The Browns have shown marked improvement coming off a 5-11 season.

They've blown out New England at home, and did the same to New Orleans on the road. They've lost five games by seven or fewer points.

The bottom line, however, is that Cleveland is 3-7 and won't be a playoff team, so the Browns in some ways are like the Panthers (1-9), playing for pride.

One of the most impressive things about Carolina during this forgettable season is that the team has never quit. Either team could suffer a mental letdown at any moment given their circumstances. The Panthers have no chance if they allow that to happen but an even better chance if Cleveland dares relax.

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