CHARLOTTE (AP) — The Carolina Panthers never quit on the season, and now have a chance to repeat as NFC South champions.
Cam Newton threw for one touchdown and ran for another, and the Panthers defeated the Cleveland Browns 17-13 on Sunday to take sole possession of first place in the division.
The victory sets up a winner-take-all showdown next Sunday at Atlanta between the Panthers (6-8-1) and Falcons (6-9) for the division title. It also guarantees a team without even a .500 record will win the NFC South.
The winner will join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only teams to reach the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season with a losing record.
“Now it all comes down to one game and that’s all we can ask for is to be in that situation,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers have now won three straight after going more than two months without a victory. The Browns (7-8) were eliminated from contention when San Diego beat San Francisco on Saturday.
Newton threw for 201 yards and ran for 63 just 12 days after the quarterback suffered two fractures in his lower back following an automobile accident. Jonathan Stewart ran for 122 yards and caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Newton.
“It speaks to his toughness,” Rivera said of Newton.
Johnny Manziel made his second NFL start for Cleveland, left with 1:49 left in the first half with a hamstring injury and did not return.
The Panthers led most of the game before Browns tight end Jordan Cameron got behind the secondary and hauled in an 81-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer. That gave Cleveland its first lead of the game at 13-10 with about 10 minutes remaining.
The Browns had just 126 yards on offense before that play and just 228 yards all afternoon.
But Newton, looking healthy and mobile in escaping from the pocket, drove the Panthers back downfield. He completed a 9-yard pass to Stewart, who slipped out of the backfield untouched and found an open pocket in the end zone.
Carolina appeared to seal the game when cornerback Josh Norman intercepted a deep Hoyer pass on Cleveland’s next possession. But the flamboyant cornerback returned the ball, holding it away from his body with one hand, and fumbled it back to the Browns when hit from behind.
That gave the Browns one last shot.
But Carolina’s defense held, with Kawann Short coming up with a big sack on Hoyer, and Thomas Davis making an open field tackle to force a punt with less than four minutes remaining.
Carolina put the game away when Stewart broke off a 30-yard run on third-and-6.
The Panthers led 10-3 at halftime behind a 2-yard run by Newton on a bootleg late in the second quarter. Newton faked a handoff to Mike Tolbert and followed a key block by tight end Greg Olsen into the end zone.
A few minutes later Manziel sprinted out to his left. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Colin Jones converged on Manziel, taking him to the ground for a 1-yard loss. Manziel attempted to get up, then fell back to the ground.
He finished 3 of 8 for 32 yards. He also ran twice for 3 yards.
Hoyer was 7 of 13 for 134 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
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