Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Browns.
B QUARTERBACK: It was an eventful 12-day span for Cam Newton, who accounted for 264 yards and two touchdowns in his return from a Dec. 9 car crash that left him with two fractures in his lower back. Newton made one mistake vs. the Browns – an ill-advised throw that was intercepted. He goes home to Atlanta with a chance at another division crown.
A RUNNING BACKS: Jonathan Stewart bounced back from his two-fumble game against Tampa Bay with a 122-yard rushing effort. Stewart caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Newton, and his 30-yard run on third-and-5 sealed the win.
B RECEIVERS: Rookie Kelvin Benjamin made a couple of tough catches against cornerback Pierre Desir, starting in place of the injured Joe Haden. Tight end Greg Olsen had only one catch after pulling down 10 passes in each of the previous two games. Backup tight end Ed Dickson’s 34-yard reception on the final drive was big.
B OFFENSIVE LINE: The line looks nothing like the unit that was foundering during the six-game losing streak. The group continues to clear lanes for Stewart, and allowed Newton to be sacked just once, although outside pressure affected Newton on his interception.
A DEFENSIVE LINE: After the Browns lost starter Johnny Manziel to injury, the Carolina line went after the less-mobile Brian Hoyer. Charles Johnson continued his late-season tear with one of three second-half sacks. Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy and second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short also added sacks.
B- LINEBACKERS: Luke Kuechly had a team-high seven tackles, but said he should have kept running with tight end Jordan Cameron on his 81-yard touchdown catch. Thomas Davis had a season-low two tackles and does not appear to be 100 percent. Rookie Adarius Glanton had five stops in place of the injured A.J. Klein.
B DEFENSIVE BACKS: Cornerback Josh Norman was in the middle of everything, picking up a personal foul with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Andrew Hawkins and fumbling away the ball during a 33-yard interception return. The Panthers held Josh Gordon to four catches for 45 yards.
C SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano missed a long field goal for the second week in a row, and the coverage teams allowed returns of 24 (on a punt) and 39 (on a kickoff). Penalties hurt the return teams, with an illegal block on Kevin Reddick negating a 25-yard punt return by Brenton Bersin.
A COACHING: Ron Rivera knows how to win late in the year, improving to 14-3 in December games. He also learns from his mistakes. His aggressive end-of-game strategy the past two weeks stands in contrast to the conservative approach he took in the Week 11 loss to Atlanta.