TIME: Sunday, 1 p.m. EST.
Winning four of their last five games has put the Cleveland Browns in playoff contention.
With the struggling Carolina Panthers coming to town Sunday, Cleveland looks to make it five out of six and move a step closer to its first postseason berth in eight years.
Cleveland has rebounded from a three-game losing streak to win four of its last five games, including a 24-15 upset of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
The Browns are one of many AFC teams still in contention for a playoff berth, but their easiest road into the postseason could be a division title. They enter play this weekend just one-half game behind the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4-1) in the AFC North.
“Right now, we’re focusing on the Panthers,” Cleveland defensive back Earl Little said. “There’s something we’re trying to accomplish, and they’re the next team that’s in our way.”
A playoff spot was also within the Browns’ grasp last season, but they lost five of their final six games en route to a 7-9 finish.
“We can’t look at the standings,” Browns defensive back Corey Fuller said. “We just know it’s a logjam with a bunch of teams. The only way you stay in the jam is to keep winning. When you’re 6-5, you’re on the verge of being home in January again.”
A few more performances like they had in Sunday’s win, and the Browns will be a playoff team for the first time since the 1994 squad captured the wild card.
Rookie William Green had his second straight big game, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown, as Cleveland posted its most impressive victory of the season.
Green, the first running back selected in the 2002 draft, has rushed for 210 yards the past two weeks after gaining just 161 in his first nine games.
Green’s play has taken some of the pressure off quarterback Tim Couch, who was 12 of 21 for 182 yards and a touchdown Sunday.
“We’re really hitting on all cylinders right now,” Couch said. “William means so much to this team right now with what he’s doing. He gives us a chance to run our whole offense.”
While Cleveland is focused on a playoff run, this season cannot end soon enough for Carolina, which has lost eight straight since opening the season 3-0.
None of the three quarterbacks used by the Panthers were able to move the offense effectively Sunday in a 41-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Starter Rodney Peete was benched in the second half, Chris Weinke played the third quarter and rookie Randy Fasani finished up. Carolina managed just 122 yards, 10 first downs and held the ball for barely 20 minutes.
Head coach John Fox said Peete will remain the starter.
“He gives us the best opportunity to win,” Fox said. “We’ve been competitive in nine of 11 games, and I think he’s been a big part of that. We’re attacking these five games to win, not anything about getting anyone ready for the future. We think our future is to win.”
Poor play on the field is just one of the problems for the Panthers, who have been troubled by several off-field incidents as well.
Starting right tackle Chris Terry was waived after he missed a court appearance on a misdemeanor charge for assaulting his wife. Then, leading receiver and All-Pro kick returner Steve Smith was suspended for beating up teammate Anthony Bright so badly that Bright was hospitalized for two days. Smith was jailed briefly after Bright filed an assault charge against him.
On Friday, running back Lamar Smith, charged Thursday night with drunken driving, was put on paid leave by the team for the rest of the season.
“He made a bad mistake,” Fox said. “He was embarrassed and very apologetic about it.”
STANDINGS: Panthers - 4th place, NFC South. Browns - 2nd place, AFC North.
PANTHERS LEADERS: Offense - Peete, 1,728 passing yards, 8 passing TDs; Lamar Smith, 737 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs; Steve Smith, 36 receptions, 534 receiving yards; Smith, Wesley Walls, 2 receiving TDs. Defense - Mike Minter, 51 tackles; Julius Peppers, 11 sacks; Deon Grant, 3 INTs.
BROWNS LEADERS: Offense - Couch, 1,884 passing yards, 13 passing TDs; Jamel White, 409 rushing yards; Green, White, 2 rushing TDs; Kevin Johnson, 47 receptions; Quincy Morgan, 674 receiving yards; Andre Davis, 6 receiving TDs. Defense - Earl Holmes, 53 tackles; Mark Word, 7 sacks; Little, 3 INTs.
PANTHERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 103.3 yards per game (22nd in NFL); Passing Offense - 168.4 ypg (30th); Total Offense - 271.6 ypg (30th). Rushing Defense - 101.9 ypg (10th); Passing Defense - 196.8 ypg (8th); Total Defense - 298.7 ypg (6th).
BROWNS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 86.7 ypg (31st); Passing Offense - 225 ypg (14th); Total Offense - 311.7 ypg (22nd). Rushing Defense - 125.7 ypg (T-22nd); Passing Defense - 227 ypg (22nd); Total Defense - 352.7 ypg (24th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 21, 1999; Panthers, 31-17. At Cleveland, Steve Beuerlein threw for two touchdowns and William Floyd ran for two more to lead Carolina.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Panthers - RB Smith’s next rushing TD will be his eighth of the season, surpassing Fred Lane’s single-season club record. … TE Walls has 51 career TD catches, and needs one to tie Dave Casper for third-most in NFL history among tight ends. … Carolina’s defense has 25 possession in the red zone, second-fewest in the NFL. Browns - The Browns will wear their orange jerseys for the second time this season Sunday. … In his last four games, DE Courtney Brown has 14 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one blocked field goal. … Cleveland’s defense is first in the AFC and second in the NFL inside the 20-yard line, allowing 14 TDs in 41 trips.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 1-4 on the road; Browns - 2-3 at home.
INJURIES: Panthers - QUESTIONABLE: LB Dan Morgan (shoulder); LB Hannibal Navies (ankle); QB Peete (finger). PROBABLE: LB Brian Allen (knee); RB Dee Brown (shoulder); WR Isaac Byrd (groin); G Kevin Donnalley (knee); DT Kris Jenkins (ankle). Browns - QUESTIONABLE: S Devin Bush (hamstring); CB Daylon McCutcheon (thumb); RB Jamel White (shoulder). PROBABLE: LB Kevin Bentley (hand).
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