Are you ready for an upset?
You’ll have to excuse Derek Anderson if he has decidedly mixed feelings about who starts for his Carolina Panthers when they welcome the Browns Sunday in Charlotte.
Anderson’s role with the Panthers is to back up Cam Newton at the position and he has fulfilled that role admirably this season.
When a balky knee prevented Newton from starting the season opener In Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers, Anderson, in his third season as Newton’s backup, stepped in and led his team to victory.
Then last Sunday, Newton sat out again against the Bucs with a couple of transverse fractures in his lower back, courtesy of an auto accident, and Anderson stepped in again and led his team to victory.
So when the schedule turned and next up were the Browns, history poked its ugly little head out from hiding. After all, Anderson spent five rather tumultuous seasons with the Browns before landing in Carolina and did not leave on a happy note. More on that later.
Suffice it to say, it would be only natural that Anderson would love to face his former team. But Newton seems to have made a remarkable comeback and, at least according to Panthers coach Ron Rivera, will start Sunday.
Feelings of ambivalence must be coursing through the former Cleveland quarterback. On the one hand, he wants his team to win and if Newton is the quarterback, so be it. But down deep, you know he wants a crack at his former team.
Remember when Anderson was carted off the field in late November in 2008 with what turned out to be torn knee ligament? Fans, not exactly fond of his quarterbacking, foolishly cheered his exit.
“I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured,” he said in an e-mail sent to a Cleveland writer all those years ago. “I know at times I wasn’t great. I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and (we) roll them.” He called Browns fans “ruthless” and said they “don’t deserve a winner.”
This week down in Charlotte, the subject was brought up again when it looked as though Anderson might have to fill in again for Newton. “I said some things I regret saying when I left,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s all over with. I’ve moved on. I’m happy. I wasn’t in a great place when I left. I’m in a lot better place now.”
Watching from the sidelines is not going to be the panacea that mollifies those feelings. It will take extreme self control for Anderson to bottle them up, although he says he has mellowed in that regard. Might he secretly harbor hopes Newton’s back problems act up and make it difficult for him to last for the entire game? Nah.
Any other team Sunday and he wouldn’t be thinking that way. As much as he might wish for something deleterious to happen to Newton, the competitor in him most likely wishes nothing but success for Newton because that keeps the 5-8-1 Panthers in the playoff hunt in the very weak NFC South.
Since Anderson left, the Browns have had eight different starting quarterbacks: Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and now Johnny Manziel. The Cleveland quarterback carousel never stops.
Manziel, anxious to atone for what had to be a colossal embarrassment in his pro starting debut last Sunday against Cincinnati, will face in the Panthers a team that will not carry even close to the emotional baggage the Bengals brought to Cleveland a week ago – revenge against a hated division opponent.
First of all, this is an inter-conference game against a team the Browns face once every four years. They have met only four times previously with the Panthers winning the first three before losing, 24-23, in 2010 when Delhomme, a former Panther, led a fourth-quarter comeback after the Browns blew a 21-7 lead.
Playing against the NFC South this season has been a blessing to the Cleveland record. Three of the Browns’’ seven victories have come courtesy of that division. A sweep assures them a finish no worse than .500 this season, a stark improvement over the last several seasons.
The Panthers, just a half game behind division leader New Orleans, can be a very dangerous team on offense, especially with a healthy Newton, whose rocket arm and dangerous running ability has given opposing teams fits.
They strike primarily through the air – Newton has thrown for 16 touchdowns, but has been picked off 11 times – with rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen the primary targets. Benjamin has caught 67 passes for 952 yards and nine TDs; Olsen checks in at 81-960-6 TDs.
But the Carolina defense permits 25½ points a game despite the presence of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the team again in tackles with 10 a game. It has allowed 38 touchdowns, 24 through the air. Lately, though, that defense has tightened up, permitting 19 points or less in three of the last four games.
In their first three games against the AFC North earlier in the season, the Panthers surrendered 112 points, gaining only a tie with Cincinnati. In fact, the AFC Central owns the NFL South with a 12-2-1 record.
The Browns, of course, have been stumbling badly on offense lately and the defense, which is having as much trouble getting off the field as the offense has staying on the field, is wearing down.
All of which points to the Browns’ fourth straight loss as the AFC North basement begins to feel that much more comfortable for the umpteenth straight season. With or without Anderson, picking against the Panthers at home in a game so important to them would be foolish.
And yet, that’s exactly what is going to happen. There’s a reason the AFC North has dominated the NFC South this season. Don’t know exactly what it is, but numbers, as a general rule, do not lie.
Call it a wild stab, but somehow, some way, Manziel is going to make up for that abomination last Sunday with just enough of a relatively mistake-free performance, combined with a defense that makes life miserable for Newton all afternoon, to pull off the upset. Make it:
Browns 23, Panthers 20