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Panthers top Browns to keep playoff hopes alive

Still alive for a playoff berth, the Panthers (6-8-1) saved their season Sunday with a gritty 17-13 victory at home over the Browns (7-8). Here's what we learned:

  1. The six-win Panthers have a legitimate chance to win the NFC South. Carolina's showdown with the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday will decide this hyper-ugly division. It's amazing to ponder the Panthers as a playoff entry during a campaign that saw them lose six straight games.
  1. Johnny Manziel's second start answered no questions. The rookie passer threw for just 32 yards before leaving late in the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Manziel was hurt after taking a massive shot from linebacker Luke Kuechly on a quarterback keeper. Before the injury, Johnny Football repeatedly bailed on the pocket too early and missed his share of open targets. He made one pretty 28-yard pass to Andrew Hawkins on Cleveland's lone scoring drive of the first half, but Johnny Football hardly altered perceptions. In six quarters with Manziel on the field, the Browns have generated just 175 yards.
  1. Cam Newton looked healthy and nimble after missing last week with the back injury he sustained in a Charlotte-area car crash. Ace Boogie picked his spots in throwing for 201 yards and running for another 63, converting third downs with his feet and bolting into the end zone for a 2-yard score before the half. Helping the Panthers to outgain the Browns 206 yards to 68 over the first two quarters, Newton -- despite one ill-advised pick on Sunday -- is playing his best ball of the year.
  1. Cleveland's battered front seven had troubles all day against Carolina's ground game. Jonathan Stewart continued his impressive stretch run with 122 yards off 24 carries. The Panthers back has averaged 19.5 totes for 109.3 yards over his past four games. DeAngelo Williams has not been missed.
  1. The Browns finished with just eight first downs to Carolina's 27, but the offense looked more fluid with Hoyer on the field. His knowledge of the playbook allowed play-caller Kyle Shanahan to play with tempo and pace, something Manziel obviously isn't comfortable with.
  1. Josh Norman cost the Panthers with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns wideout Andrew Hawkins. The young cornerback, though, is an absolute keeper for Carolina in the secondary, displayed by his acrobatic second-half pick of Hoyer. Norman wound up being stripped, but the Panthers' defense on the whole did an excellent job of shutting down Browns star wideout Josh Gordon for just 45 yards off four grabs.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 16 game and breaks down the playoff picture. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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