With the NFC South race coming down the wire, the Panthers need to do something they haven't done this season – win a third consecutive game.
"There are a lot of positives that have gone on that we are going to continue to work toward to put us in position to extend the season," tight end Greg Olsen said.
To do that, they'll have to beat rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns (7-7), who have lost three straight entering Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium (1:00 p.m., CBS).
"We know they've got some playmakers, we know they've got some terrific football players," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The idea is to understand who you are playing against, but more importantly, what they do."
Manziel, of course, draws an overwhelming amount of national attention. But for the Panthers, this game is about a lot more than stopping a high-profile rookie.
This is Carolina's final regular season home game, but if the Panthers win their last two and the Saints lose one of theirs, it won't be the last game at Bank of America Stadium this season.
Here's what to watch as the Panthers look to keep their playoff hopes alive against the Browns.
NEWTON RETURNS?: All signs point toward quarterback Cam Newton, who is listed probable, starting against the Browns. Newton missed last week's game after sustaining two transverse process fractures in his back as a result of a violent car accident.
Rivera and the athletic training staff liked what they saw from Newton during the week of practice, and Newton said he felt no pain.
If Newton starts, he'll hope to pick up right where he left off two weeks ago at New Orleans, when he had arguably his best game of the season, throwing for 226 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 83 yards and one touchdown.
PICK YOUR SPOTS: Whoever plays quarterback versus the Browns needs to be wary of their propensity to intercept passes. Cleveland leads the league with 20 interceptions, and you can expect the Browns to make aggressive plays on the ball.
One thing to keep an eye on is the status of top cornerback Joe Haden, who is questionable with a shoulder injury. Safety Tashaun Gipson, who leads the Browns with six interceptions, is out with an injured knee.
DEFENDING JOHNNY FOOTBALL: Manziel made his first career start last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, and it didn't go well. The Browns lost 30-0, and Manziel completed just 10-of-18 passes for 80 yards with two interceptions while rushing five times for 13 yards.
"My first couple starts weren't the best," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "I don't think one start that didn't go his way is really going to affect him. He's a dangerous guy."
The Panthers – and anybody who saw Manziel play at Texas A&M – know how dangerous the elusive quarterback can be, especially when he breaks contain and improvises. Thus, the Carolina defense will make every effort to keep Manziel inside the pocket.
"With him, the biggest thing is not letting him use his legs to beat you," Kuechly said. "He moves extremely well and he's got great escapability. On the edges is where he's dangerous.
"Our objective is to try to keep him inside where we know where he is. We don't want to let him run around."
KEEP RUNNING: The Panthers, who are starting the same offensive line for the fourth consecutive week, have hit their stride in the running game, rushing for 570 yards over the last three games.
Sunday, they'll face a Cleveland run defense that ranks 31st in the NFL, allowing 137.6 yards per game.
Carolina, which ranks 12th in the NFL in rushing with 116.6 yards per game, will no doubt test the Browns on the ground.
|Panthers in the Park||Located at Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward between Church Street and Mint Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free, interactive area offers fun for the entire family with appearances by the TopCats, Sir Purr and PurrCussion and the Fuel Up to Play 60 Kids Combine. Get Fuel Up to Play 60 awareness bracelets, bookmarks and pedometers from the Southeast Dairy Association.|
|Panthers Lair||Located on the corner of Mint Street and Morehead Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for photos at the 107.9 The Link van, Sir Purr appearing throughout the morning and a performance by PurrCussion. Charge your phone at the AT&T Connection Zone. Learn about protecting your home from CPI Security. Play CW Plinko and win prizes from WCCB-TV. Show off your cornhole skills at the Red Robin tailgate area. Have your photo taken at the Remax photo booth. Area also features a DJ.|
|Pregame||Musical Performance - Sleepy Man Banjo Boys|
|Invocation||Rev. L. Cuttino Alexander - Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Mount Holly, N.C.|
|U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry-East Color Guard - Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, N.C.|
|National Anthem||Tess Boyer|
|Halftime||Performance - Shelby (N.C.) High School Orchestra with PurrCussion|