Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Browns v. Carolina Panthers
Sunday, 1 p.m., FirstEnergy Stadium
Coach: Ron Rivera, 70-53-1, eighth year.
Last game: Lost to Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-17, Dec. 2, in Tampa.
Series: Panthers lead, 4-1.
Last meeting: Panthers won, 17-13, Dec. 21, 2014, in Charlotte, NC.
NFL rankings: Offense is 11th overall (second rushing, 20th passing), defense is 14th overall (sixth rushing, 22nd passing) and turnover differential is plus-1.
Things I think
1. Their Super Bowl aspirations are long gone and now after four losses in a row, the Panthers could be in survivor mode. The jobs of both coach Ron Rivera and General Manager Marty Hurney possibly could be in peril. Their futures were naturally questioned when the team was purchased for a record $2.2 billion by hedge fund manager David Tepper in May. A 6-2 start silenced that talk, as Tepper pledged to keep intact the football operations inherited by disgraced former owner Jerry Richardson. But a continued free-fall might lead to changes despite Tepper’s desire to exhibit the patience he learned as a minority investor in his native-state Pittsburgh Steelers. Like Jimmy Haslam, another former Steelers’ minority partner, Tepper may soon find out how difficult it is to emulate the Steelers' Way when your fan base gets disgusted with losing.
2. Statistically, Cam Newton is having his finest season in several categories, including a completion mark of 69.5 that is almost 10 points higher than his career average. It’s a deceiving season for him, though, because coordinator Norv Turner has turned him into a dink-and-dunker this year. That -- along with the fact Newton has left a game on two occasions to allow for backup Taylor Heinicke to attempt Hail Mary passes – has led observers to speculate that Newton’s right shoulder continues to restrict him. Newton had labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder after the 2016 season and he hasn’t been the same since. Newton remains a threat to run, however, and he is particularly dangerous in the red zone. He leads all NFL quarterbacks – and is second on the team – in rushing with 451 rushing yards on 91 attempts. He has four rush TDs.
3. Newton’s offensive weapons are limited, however. Franchise tight end Greg Olsen has been grounded again with a recurrent foot injury and is on injured reserve. Although rookie receiver D.J. Moore (42 receptions, 609 yards, two touchdowns) has been a bright spot, the Panthers’ offense revolves around Newton and Christian McCaffery. The second-year running back from Stanford is seventh in the NFL with 863 yards rushing (5.3 average, five touchdowns) and leads all running backs with 80 receptions for 663 yards and six TDs. McCaffery’s 1,526 yards from scrimmage rank fourth in the NFL.
4. The Panthers’ defense ranks 14th overall, but it’s a shadow of what it has been under Rivera. The problem starts with the fact that Rivera’s outstanding defensive coordinators have defected to the head coaching ranks the past two seasons. Sean McDermott went to Buffalo and Steve Wilks went to Arizona – and both took a couple assistants with them. Earlier this season, Rivera took over defensive play-calling from coordinator Eric Washington and this week dismissed two assistant coaches, including line coach Brady Hoke. Another problem has been the lack of a pass rush, which has exposed a young secondary. The Panthers hoped to squeeze one more productive season out of 38-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers and re-signed him for a 17th season at $5 million. The future Hall of Famer is fourth on the NFL all-time list with 158.5 sacks, but has produced only four this year and clearly is at the end of his distinguished career.
Did you know … ?
1. Luke Kuechly is a game-changer in the mold of middle linebackers from any era of the NFL. Since he entered the league in 2012, Kuechly’s unofficial total of 918 tackles is more than any player, but he also leads all linebackers with 16 interceptions and 24 total takeaways.
2. When he last played for the Browns in the 2011 season, safety Mike Adams already was nicknamed “Pops.” He was 30 then. Now he’s 37, and he has started every game for the Panthers over the last two seasons. Adams’ 46 career takeaways lead all active NFL players.
3. The Panthers have 14 players on their roster who have made the Pro Bowl at some point in their career. That is the most in the NFL.
Small world: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner held the same job with the Browns in 2013 … Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner was Browns receivers coach in 2013 … Safety Mike Adams played for the Browns 2007-11 … Punter Michael Palardy was on the Browns practice squad in 2016 … Linebacker Ben Jacobs played for the Browns in 2011 and spent time on their practice squad in 2012.