Prowling through the forest at night,
Always giving the neighbours a fright,
Never ventring into the city,
The ‘nature lovers’ think him pretty,
Hair as black as night can be,
Ever prowling gracefully,
Roaring on the mountain tops,
Seen by nobody, off he hops.
As snow falls and Christmas songs fill the malls, the Cleveland Browns (4-7-1) return home for their penultimate home game of the season. Instead of carolers the Carolina Panthers (6-6) will come calling looking to turn their season around.
The Panthers joined the NFL in 1995 while the Browns were “out to lunch.” As a result, the two clubs have only met five times (the fewest of any active NFL team) with Carolina taking four of the matchups. Cleveland’s lone victory over the Cats was a 24-23 home decision in 2010. Peyton Hillis ran for 131 yards and three touchdowns that day which says all you need to know about the state of things.
The Browns will enter the game as 1.5-point home dogs. While the Browns face-planted in Texas last week the Panthers have hardly been the picture of quality football lately. Carolina roared to a 6-2 start, but then got blown out 52-21 at Pittsburgh. That began a four-game slide that the Panthers are still riding. Nevertheless, the Pride of Charlotte remains firmly in the NFC playoff picture, only a half-game behind the six-seed Minnesota Vikings. With two tough contests against the division leading New Orleans Saints to go, Carolina is in win-now mode in Ohio.
The Felines rank 11th in total offense averaging 25.3 points per game. The defense sits 21st with 25.5 points allowed. The team has been decidedly average in the turnover game ranking fifteenth in both turnovers lost and won. Quarterback Cam Newton runs the offense to the tune of 278-of-400 passing, 2,999 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He has struggled of late, however, with at least one interception in the past four games. Last week at lowly Tampa Bay, Newton tossed four picks as well as receiving the business end of four sacks. Newton is nursing a bum shoulder which may limit his skills against the Browns. Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey is coming into his own in the NFL. The Stanford product has 863 yards and five touchdowns averaging 5.3-yards per touch. He has also proven an able receiver with 663 yards and six touchdowns through the air.
December is a cold month in Cuyahoga County, but things have been especially chilly at FirstEnergy Stadium in the last month of the year. Here is the Browns’ December record for the past five plus years:
That’s a 2-20 composite record in December. The reasons for this failure vary from year-to-year, but the results are the same. While most lost seasons would leave Browns fans secretly hoping for defeats to improve draft stock, this year somehow feels different. With Baker Mayfield at the helm every game offers another opportunity for the rookie to cut his teeth and get more comfortable in the league. While it may cost a couple draft slots in April, earning a couple December wins feels like a good investment.
Clearly uttering the “p-word” last week was premature so I’ll leave that out. Still, even in a disheartening defeat it was encouraging to see Mayfield rebound in the second half and display support and leadership skills when teammates stumbled. This week we will get another chance to see how he reacts to a rough loss. The Panthers are contenders but feel ripe for an upset. Let’s see if the Dawgs can tame the Cats on Sunday.