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NFL Preview - Carolina (1-9) at Cleveland (3-7)



By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The last two weeks have been close but no cigar for the Cleveland Browns. This week should present an opportunity to get on track, though, as the they face the NFL's worst team when the Carolina Panthers invade Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday.

After watching the New York Jets score in the waning seconds of overtime to pull out a win in Week 10, Cleveland allowed the Jacksonville Jaguars to go 87 yards late in the fourth quarter in a 24-20 setback last Sunday.

"It's obviously a frustrating result for us," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "We had a lot of opportunities to change the outcome of the game and we didn't take advantage of them. The defense did a really nice job throughout the course of the game generating turnovers, [getting] five in a row in the second half."

An opportunistic Browns' defense picked off four Jaguars passes and recovered two fumbles, but still found themselves on the wrong end for the fourth time in their last six chances.

"Defensively we made a lot of plays," Mangini added. "We forced six turnovers but we couldn't stop them when we needed to."

Even worse, rookie quarterback Colt McCoy left the game with an ankle sprain, leaving his status for this week's contest up in the air.

At 3-7, Cleveland sits in third place in the AFC North, four games back of division-leaders Baltimore and Pittsburgh and one game in front of the cellar- dwelling Cincinnati Bengals.

While the emergence of McCoy in Cleveland has elevated expectations going forward a bit, the same cannot be said of his contemporary in Carolina, fellow rookie Jimmy Clausen.

Clausen was 0-4 as a starter and had the NFL's worst passer rating before missing last week's game against Baltimore with a concussion. Sadly, the Panthers actually missed him against the Ravens, as replacement Brian St. Pierre struggled in his first NFL start and Carolina stumbled yet again in a 37-13 loss to the Ravens.

"Especially after we worked so hard to get ready, I feel bad for the guys in that room," head coach John Fox said after the loss. "Especially those who are still healthy and still fighting, they're not getting the results we desire."

At 1-9 and having dropped four straight games, the Panthers have all the looks of a team that has already packed it in.

SERIES HISTORY

The Panthers have won all three of their all-time meetings with the Browns, winning in Carolina in 2006 (20-12), and in Cleveland in both 1999 (31-17) and 2002 (13-6).

Fox is 2-0 in his career against the Browns, while Mangini will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

Carolina's quarterback carousel continues to spin, and this week it could land back on Clausen, who sat out last week's tilt with a concussion. Fox has said if Clausen is cleared he will start in place of emergency starter St. Pierre, who completed just 13-of-28 passes for 173 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Clausen hasn't been much better, as the Panthers as a team own the worst passing attack in the league at 156.1 yards per game. A bright spot in the loss to the Ravens was the play of running back Mike Goodson, who had his second straight 100-yard performance in place of the injured Jonathan Stewart, rushing for 120 yards on 22 carries. Rookie wideout David Gettis (25 receptions, 3 TD) hauled in the second-longest play in franchise history last week, an 88-yard scoring strike from St. Pierre, but the rest of the receivers were again quiet, specifically Steve Smith (34 receptions, 2 TD), who managed just four catches for 46 yards.

The Browns have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde defense and this past week it was bad, as it allowed Jacksonville to amass 370 yards. Overall Cleveland is 23rd in the league in total yards allowed (359.8 ypg), but have surrendered the 11th fewest points in the league at 20.6 per game. One competitive problem, though, is that two of the nine teams ahead of them (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) also reside in their division. Opposing passers have cashed in for 243.4 yards per week on a 61.4 completion percentage with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions against Cleveland. On the ground, runners have managed 4.0 yards per carry and 116.4 yards per game on the Browns, who are 21st in the league in run defense. Safety T.J. Ward leads the team with 80 total tackles, including 61 solos, while veteran linebacker Scott Fujita is tied for second with 51 stops, though the ex-Super Bowl winner with New Orleans is still battling a knee injury and is out indefinitely. The defense racked up a season-high six turnovers and four sacks against Jacksonville, but allowed Jags quarterback David Garrard to go down the field for the winning score late in the game.

WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL

It is no secret as to what the Browns are going to do on offense. Peyton Hillis left, Peyton Hillis right, and Peyton Hillis up the middle. The Browns running back has been one of the league's breakout stars this season with 774 rushing yards. He managed just 48 yards on the ground in last week's loss to Jags, but totaled a game-high 95 receiving yards on six catches. Hillis also scored his eighth touchdown and has found the end zone in all but one game this season (at Pittsburgh, 10/17). His team-leading 10 total touchdowns are the most by a Browns player since 2007, when Braylon Edwards (16) and Jamal Lewis (11) each reached double-digits. Hillis also leads the team with 40 receptions, but who will be getting him the ball this week is up in the air. McCoy has shown plenty of promise since taking over the starting reins, but left Sunday's loss with an ankle sprain. If he is not ready to go, it could be former Panther Jake Delhomme getting the call. Delhomme guided Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance in 2003, but was released after a disappointing 2009 campaign. According to Mangini, the veteran is at 100 percent after enduring an ankle sprain of his own that sidelined him for the past few weeks. Mangini could also opt for Seneca Wallace, who started in place of an ailing Delhomme earlier in the year. Chansi Stuckey leads an pedestrian wide receiver corps with 31 catches, while tight end Benjamin Watson has caught 36 passes for a team-high 434 yards. Wideout Joshua Cribbs is as dangerous a return man as there is in the league, but has not really been a factor on offense this season.

Hillis should be able to have his way against the 24th-ranked rushing defense of the Panthers, who have allowed 128.4 yards per game on the ground. Carolina only surrendered 100 rushing yards in the blowout loss to the Ravens, but had surrendered 186 and 165 in its previous two games. Over the last three games, they have also allowed an average of 34 points. Injuries have been a big problem on the defensive side of the ball for the Panthers this season, as weakside linebacker Thomas Davis has yet to play all year after tearing his ACL in camp and replacement Dan Connor went on injured reserve with a fractured hip last month. The good news, though, is that leading sacker Charles Johnson (40 tackles, 4.5 sacks) seemed to be fine after injuring his hip two weeks ago, as he had seven tackles with a sack against Baltimore. Johnson's been the best of a uninspiring lot of pass rushers that have generated just 16 sacks on the year, but a secondary headed up by cornerback Chris Gamble (35 tackles, 8 PD) has actually held up pretty well even without much help up front. The Panthers are allowing only 203.5 passing yards per game (7th overall), while strong safety Charles Godfrey (56 tackles) stands near the league leaders with four interceptions.

FANTASY FOCUS

This probably isn't the ideal contest if you are looking for some fantasy contributions. Hillis has been productive week-in and week-out, but other than that the Browns don't offer much in terms of production on the offensive side of the ball. Cleveland's defense, though, is a must-start thanks to its special teams, specifically the electric Cribbs. If you are looking for fantasy help from Carolina, then your team is probably in as bad a shape as the Panthers. Goodson, though, could be a nice pickup, as he will continue to get the bulk of the carries. A once-must start receiver in Smith has been relegated to being a non-factor thanks to the ineptness at Carolina's quarterback position.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Cleveland is probably better than its 3-7 record, while the Panthers are every bit as bad as their 1-9 mark might suggest. Just so you know how poor Carolina has been on offense, it is a major step up this week should Clausen return to the lineup. As for the Browns, they have played pretty well defensively the last few weeks, but have broken when it's mattered most late in games. That has been the case all season, as they have held a fourth-quarter lead in every game but one this year. This week that shouldn't happen, though. The Browns' quarterback situation may be muddled thanks to injuries, but this is a week where Hillis will carry the load.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 28, Panthers 13

11/24 13:29:49 ET

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