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Cleveland Browns vs. Carolina Panthers: Week 16 Game Preview & Prediction

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This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Carolina Panthers. With the Browns' playoff hopes all but over and the Panthers in good position to make the postseason (despite their record) with a win, Carolina certainly seems to have more to play for this week. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation

Pos Advantage Reason
QB -

Browns: After last week's debacle, Johnny Manziel is at the bottom of the food chain in terms of NFL quarterbacks, and he's going to have to prove he can work his way up. Manziel and the Browns' offense should look better this week because they have no where to go but up. There were some elements to the offense that were really bad last week, and I can only hope that Kyle Shanahan is better with the formations he gives Manziel this week.

Panthers: The Panthers in general are having a down year, and that includes Cam Newton. Newton is actually 3-8-1 this season, while his backup, Derek Anderson, is 2-0. Newton is expected to start this week after missing last Sunday's game with the back injury he suffered in an automobile accident several days earlier. The former No. 1 overall pick will not be afraid to run -- he's had rushing efforts of 83, 49, 43, 41, and 107 yards this season. Whether his back injury reduces his mobility remains to be seen.

RB -

Browns: It's tough to judge the running back position because of how much the productivity actually involves how well the offensive line is doing. During the Browns' three-game losing streak, the running game has suffered mightily. Is it fair to place blame on rookie backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell?

Panthers: Carolina is expected to be without running back DeAngelo Williams again as he recovers from a hand injury. Jonathan Stewart will start for the Panthers, and that sounds like bad news for Cleveland considering how much of a commitment the Panthers have made toward him in their gameplan as of late. Over the past three games, Stewart is averaging 18 carries and 105 yards rushing per game. Carolina's backup will be a familiar face to Browns fans -- Fozzy Whittaker, who gets about 2-3 touches per game.

WR
TE
-

Browns: While I think the Browns' receivers have more potential overall, the productivity isn't matching the level of talent needed to win. Andrew Hawkins has 8 catches for 69 yards in his last 3 games. Since Josh Gordon's return, Taylor Gabriel has just 3 catches for 27 yards in 4 games. You'd think that Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron returning are taking away their touches, but they really aren't. Gordon has 12 catches for 138 yards in his past 3 games. In his 2 games back, Cameron has 5 catches for 45 yards.

Panthers: The big story heading into the year was that the Panthers didn't have any depth at wide receiver. While rookie Kelvin Benjamin has had his fair share of issues, he's used his size very well to go up for 9 touchdowns and has nearly 1,000 yards receiving. Tight end Greg Olsen is also close to reaching 1,000 yards -- both he and Benjamin should reach that mark this week -- and is by far the team's most targeted receiver. Jerricho Cotchery is the team's No. 2 receiver, but he is where the dropoff begins. The No. 3 receiver is former Buckeye Philly Brown.

OL -

Browns: There were a lot of complaints about the Browns' offensive line last week. My personal opinion was that the pass protection was perfectly fine for Manziel more times than not, and I blame a lot of the procedure penalties or whiffs in the read-option on Kyle Shanahan implementing too many new elements at once. Cleveland still excels in pass protection, and their run blocking wouldn't seem as bad if the quarterbacks were better on third downs.

Panthers: Carolina has allowed 12 more sacks this season, and if Cam Newton isn't as mobile this week due to his injury, that plays against the Panthers. That is why it would be wise of the Panthers to stay committed to their running game. Carolina also runs the zone-blocking scheme, and the last team to do that against Cleveland was the Houston Texans. We all know how Alfred Blue tore up the Browns' defense that day.

If we're looking for a weakness on Carolina's offensive line, it would be left tackle Byron Bell and left guard Andrew Norwell. Norwell has been filling in for injured starter Amini Silatolu, who has missed 7 of 8 games and is questionable to return this week with a knee injury.

DL -

Browns: The lack of push that the Browns' defensive line had last week against the Bengals was pretty embarrassing. Ahtyba Rubin is in the final year of his contract and said this week that he wants to finish his career as a Brown. That will only be possible if he agrees to a non-lucrative deal, because the Browns will certainly be looking for upgrades on the defensive line in 2014.

Panthers: Defensive end Charles Johnson is Carolina's best pass rusher with 6.5 sacks and will be lined up against Mitchell Schwartz most of the game in Carolina's 4-3 defense. Defensive end Mario Addison will also rotate into the game often as a pass-rushing threat -- he also has 6.5 sacks this season. Star Lotulelei, the team's first-round pick in 2013, plays defensive tackle and can be a force against the run. The Panthers' defensive line isn't dominant, but they earn a better grade than Cleveland.

LB -

Browns: The status of inside linebacker Karlos Dansby remains up-in-the-air. The fact that Tashaun Gipson was placed on IR but Dansby was not gives some hope that the veteran linebacker could play this week. Paul Kruger has a team-high and career-high 10 sacks and could be looking to bump that total up if Newton's mobility is hurt.

Panthers: Luke Kuechly is perhaps the best middle linebacker in the NFL and he leads the Panthers with 138 tackles. Similarly, although he is not a sack artist, veteran outside linebacker Thomas Davis is consistently one of the top players at his position. With those two linebackers as the core of the defense, it really is quite puzzling as to why the Panthers' defense has struggled this season. The other starter in the group is outside linebacker A.J. Klein, who is questionable this week with an injury.

DB -

Browns: The fact that Joe Haden hasn't been ruled out yet, and that he likely made the trip to Carolina, leaves me optimistic that he will try to give-it-a-go on Sunday. Buster Skrine will definitely hold one of the starting positions down, and then Justin Gilbert will be next in line. If Haden is out, the secondary situation will be interesting: I'd expect rookie corners Gilbert and Pierre Desir to play the outside, with Skrine moving inside. Tashaun Gipson is officially out for the year, but Donte Whitner and Jim Leonhard continue to hold their own in the secondary.

Panthers: Carolina is starting a pair of rookies in their secondary -- fifth round pick Bene Benwikere at cornerback and fourth round pick Tre Boston at free safety. Boston recently took over the starting role, but Benwikere has been one of the NFL's top performing cornerbacks, per PFF. The Panthers' other starters include Josh Norman at cornerback and veteran Roman Harper at strong safety.

ST -

Browns: As evidenced by last week's opening kickoff, Spencer Lanning will handle kickoff duties for Cleveland over the final two games. We'll see if Garrett Hartley actually gets to see the field this week. Travis Benjamin might have some legitimate return opportunities this week -- the Panthers rank 32nd against punt returns and 31st against kickoff returns.

Panthers: The reason Cleveland gets the advantage on special teams this week is because of how poorly the Panthers' coverage units are. They allow 15.8 yards per punt return and 31.3 yards per kick return. To compare, the Browns allow 7.1 yards per punt return and 22.7 yards per kick return. Some results in rankings are often negligible, but those differences are so extreme that I had to give Cleveland the edge.

Graham Gano is the Panthers' field goal kicker, and he is 26-of-31 on the year. His career long is 59 yards. He was 6-of-6 from beyond 50 yards in 2013. Punter Brad Nortman is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to punting, and he had a pair of punts blocked and returned for touchdowns against the Vikings a few weeks ago.



Prediction

The optimism train has run out, unfortunately. Competitively, I think the Browns should be a better football team than the Panthers, but there are a lot of elements to consider here. The Browns' run defense was atrocious last week, and Carolina's running game has been on fire, so-to-speak. Cleveland's offense was such a mess last week, and it's hard to see everything clicking at 100% all of a sudden against a Panthers defense that has turned things up a notch the past two weeks. The Browns will make a game of it, but Carolina will prevail.

Carolina Panthers 24, Cleveland Browns 20


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