KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 3rd meeting. The Panthers lead the series 2-0. Both games were against the Browns in the expansion era. This upcoming game will be the first for Coach Romeo Crennel against the Panthers.
2006 RANKINGS: Browns: offense 30th (28th rush, 20th pass);
defense 25th (29th rush, 12th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (13th rush, 24th
pass); defense 22nd (23rd rush, 17th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers' offense has stepped up an entire notch with WR Steve Smith back in the lineup. His presence has even helped the ground game, with RB DeShaun Foster enjoying bigger holes thanks to increased defensive focus on the passing game. It's a dilemma for the Browns, who have an injury-ravaged secondary that could be without CBs Leigh Bodden and/or Gary Baxter. Cleveland has to find a way to limit the big plays defensively while controlling the ball and working on field position on offense. RB Reuben Droughns will see plenty of work, and QB Charlie Frye needs to manage the short passing game in order to move the chains consistently. The Panthers' run defense hasn't lived up to expectations, so there should be room for Droughns to work. And Frye is beginning to develop more chemistry with TE Kellen Winslow.
FAST FACTS: Browns: First ever visit to Carolina. ... Have not won consecutive road games in the same season since 2003. Panthers: Are 5-0 when RB DeShaun Foster rushes for at least 100 yards. ... WR Keyshawn Johnson has caught at least one pass in 155 consecutive games, the second longest streak behind Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison (158).
PREDICTION: Panthers 27-16
--The Browns informed theOBR.com on Saturday that CB Gary Baxter will not appear during this weekend's game and will not travel to Charlotte.
--TE Kellen Winslow said his knee is fine, but he continues to be listed on the weekly injury report. Winslow has had to fight through soreness in the knee he wrecked in a motorcycle accident, but he still has had an excellent start to the season.
--RB Reuben Droughns is listed as questionable on the injury report, but he ran for 100 yards in Oakland after being listed as questionable last week. Droughns should play, but he may have a tougher time gaining yards against the strong Panthers defensive line.
--QB Charlie Frye said a key to success in Carolina is getting rid of the ball quickly to counter the Panthers pass rush. One problem Frye has had in a strong start is occasionally holding the ball too long.
--WR Joe Jurevicius worked his way back on the field last Sunday for the first time since the opener. This weekend he may work his way back into the starting lineup. Jurevicius is too smart and too valuable to be a situational player.
--S Brian Russell is the quarterback of the defense, the guy who makes
coverage calls. His job will be vital this weekend if the Browns, as expected,
start corners Daven Holly and Ralph Brown. Russell said it's vital the team has
no breakdowns against Carolina's Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith.
--QB Jake Delhomme should have a big game Sunday facing a Browns secondary that has been depleted by injuries. Delhomme has thrown only one pick this season, although he has turned the ball over three times on fumbles.
--SS Shaun Williams (foot) practiced on Thursday, but he probably will serve as a backup to Colin Branch on Sunday.
--CB Ken Lucas is likely to start this week after getting benched last Sunday because of a shoulder problem that limited his ability to tackle. There has been slippage in Lucas' skills, but coach John Fox wanted to rest him as much as possible, so Lucas only played on third downs.
--WR Steve Smith could be in for a huge afternoon Sunday against a suspect Browns secondary. Smith has outstanding speed, and the Browns don't appear to have anyone who can hang with him.
--LB Dan Morgan (concussion) is out again this week, and the Panthers have set no timetable for his return. He did do some running on the side at the beginning of practice Thursday, which means he's getting closer to a return.
--MLB Chris Draft will start in place of Dan Morgan (concussion) this week.
The Panthers are 13-5 since 2002 in games in which Morgan has not played.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Browns: Steve Smith might have the chance to post some big numbers for Carolina on Sunday. Browns cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Gary Baxter are both listed as questionable on the weekly injury report, but it would be a surprise if either played.
Bodden has been in a walking boot all week after spraining his ankle in the win over Oakland on Sunday. He is the Browns' best cover corner and surely would have been assigned to cover Smith, Carolina's dynamic receiver. That duty now probably falls to Daven Holly.
Baxter has struggled since slightly tearing a pectoral muscle in preseason. He practiced some during the week, but it seems likely the Browns will give him Sunday and the bye week to heal.
Ralph Brown would start opposite Holly if Baxter does not play.
Holly seems emboldened by his play last week, when Randy Moss caught just one pass for 5 yards. Part of that was because of Moss' lack of interest, part because second-year quarterback Andrew Walter could not get him the ball.
Jake Delhomme brings a lot more experience to the Panthers offense this
weekend, which could allow Smith and Keyshawn Johnson to have big games.
Panthers: One day after returning to practice following a three-week absence, center Justin Hartwig was back on the side working with trainers.
Although he's still listed as questionable due to a groin injury, about the best the Panthers can probably hope for is having Hartwig to work as a backup this week against Cleveland.
"He just didn't feel quite as good as we were hoping. But no setback, no re-injury," coach John Fox said. "He's still listed as questionable and still not ruled out for this weekend."
In all likelihood, Geoff Hangartner will make his fourth straight start this week at center.
Hangartner has been filling in for Hartwig and has been improving with each passing week. The offensive line finally began to jell last week in the fourth quarter against New Orleans, so Fox probably would have been hesitant to change his starting lineup right now anyway.
"Every coach every year has to deal with that," Fox said when asked if
putting Hartwig back in might disrupt the continuity of the offensive line.
"We'll evaluate it this week and we'll make that decision Sunday."