NFL Preview - Cleveland (7-7) at Carolina (5-8-1) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - It can't possibly go worse, can it?
The much-anticipated starting debut of Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel was a bigger bomb than "47 Ronin," the Keanu Reeves fantasy action film regarded by Hollywood as the biggest Box Office bust in history.
"Johnny Football" will get his second opportunity on Sunday against a 5-8-1 Carolina Panthers team still in the thick of the NFC South race.
The harshest of Manziel's critics didn't expect what happened last weekend when the lightning rod proved to be an abject mess in his first NFL start, completing 10-of-18 for 80 yards with two first-half interceptions as Cleveland's playoff hopes nosedived in a similar trajectory to Manziel's stock with a 30-0 setback to the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals.
"There were flashes but they were brief," Browns coach Mike Pettine said in a laughably kind review of Manziel's performance.
Seemingly every Bengals defender got a chance to flash the former Heisman Trophy winner's signature money-sign celebration to the FirstEnergy Stadium crowd, essentially mocking Manziel for his inability to get anything done offensively.
"Of course, he kind of brought that on himself," Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry quipped.
The Browns made the switch from the limited Brian Hoyer to Manziel to provide a spark in an effort to keep their fading playoff hopes alive. However, that spark was never fanned.
In his first 30 minutes, Manziel was 4-for-9 for 22 yards and a 12.0 passer rating and things never really turned around as Cleveland, which has lost three in a row, ran only 38 offensive plays (the fewest by any team in a game this season), totaled 107 yards of total offense and had six three-and-outs.
"I saw the field fine today, but when it came down to it, I just need to throw the ball and let it rip, and I didn't do a very good job of that," Manziel understated.
About the only positive you could take from Manziel's performance was the fact he didn't make any excuses.
"Nobody wants to win (in the locker room) more than I do, and it's tough to come out there and lay an egg like that," Manziel said. "I'm not using the rookie excuse. I needed to play better."
The Panthers, meanwhile, kept hope alive in Week 15 by topping lowly Tampa Bay, 19-17, to win for the first time in seven games despite being without star quarterback Cam Newton, who was injured in a car accident earlier in the week.
Derek Anderson filled in for Newton and threw for 277 yards and a touchdown.
Newton suffered two transverse process fractures in his lower back in a two- car accident on Dec. 9 near the team's stadium. Anderson, who also started for Newton in the Panthers' Week 1 win at Tampa Bay, completed 25-of-40 passes.
"Everything was not as clean as we would've liked it." Anderson said. "It wasn't perfect by any means ... overall I'm very happy with the win."
Greg Olsen matched a career-high with 10 receptions for 110 yards and Kelvin Benjamin added 104 yards on eight receptions for Carolina, which is percentage points behind the New Orleans Saints (6-8) for first place in the division with two games to play.
After Cleveland the Panthers will finish their schedule at Atlanta, which is 5-9 and also in the mix in the NFC South. The Saints and Falcons play each other in New Orleans on Sunday, and the Saints will close the regular season at Tampa Bay in Week 17.
The Panthers need to win their final two games and have the Saints lose once to repeat as division champions.
Carolina leads its all-time series with the Browns by a 3-1 margin but the two teams haven't met since Nov. 28, 2010 when Cleveland got its only win, a 24-23 triumph in the Buckeye State. The clubs haven't met in the Queen City since 2006, a 20-12 Panthers win.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Panthers are playing a wait-and-see game with Newton but signs point to him giving it a go on Sunday. Newton was able to practice by Wednesday and reports said he was moving well and looking relatively pain free, just eight days since his accident.
"He looked like he threw the ball well, but again, a lot depends on how he feels tomorrow," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He went through all the team drills. He went through all the individual drills. He did all we had slated for him.This is a young man who is very strong-willed and very tough."
The hope is that Newton continues to progress without any setbacks. Rivera hopes to make a final decision on his status by Friday.
Whether its Newton or Anderson under center, expect them to keep feeding Olsen, who has 20 catches in his last two games and is tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with 81 receptions and ranks second with 960 yards.
"If I see him one-on-one with a guy that I know can't cover him, I have a lot of confidence in what (Olsen's) going to do," Anderson said.
Making things tougher for the Cleveland defense are injuries to cornerbacks Joe Haden (shoulder) and Justin Gilbert (concussion), who are both iffy for this contest.
Manziel, meanwhile, called his first chance at solving an NFL defense "very humbling" and the Browns are hoping his struggles serve as a wake-up call when it comes to off-the-field preparation.
"I think it's too small a sample size," Pettine said when asked to project Manziel's future. "When you look at how we played around him, I think it's very unfair to judge what somebody's career is going to be like off of their first start. That type of game humbles all of us."
Manziel, however, is trying to stay away from the negativity.
"I'm not really listening to any outside noise or what anybody else has to say," he said. "I know that I need to play better and if I don't, people are going to continue to say things like that."
The Panthers get a big break here in a must win game with Manziel starting, which strikes many as a general manager forcing a first-round pick on a first- year coach with little cachet. Pettine understands Manziel is simply not ready to play an NFL game yet so the Browns ate behind the 8-ball for the final weeks.
Whether Newton or Anderson starts, Carolina should do enough to stay in the NFC South race for at least one more week.
"It's a race, but we play Cleveland next. That will be the focus," Rivera said. "We've got to get things going in the right direction."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Panthers 20, Browns 13