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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers have rediscovered their running game.
Jonathan Stewart has run for 437 yards on 78 carries — a 5.6-yard average — in the four games since the bye week and the Panthers have won three straight games to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
Stewart, who has been starting for the injured DeAngelo Williams, ran for 122 yards on 24 carries and caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to help the Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns 17-13 on Sunday.
Stewart attributes the improvement in the running game to the stability on the offensive line in recent weeks.
"We had a lot of ups and downs as far as personnel and guys being nicked and hurt," Stewart said. "That had a lot to do with it. ... With guys being out, we could hardly get in a rhythm. The last couple of weeks the difference has been we've been pretty steady injury-wise."
Carolina's 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 below .500 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.
Said tight end Greg Olsen: "It says a lot about the guys in here. ... Every year you set out to try to win your division. We have one game left and it is right in front of us."
Things we learned from Carolina's win over Cleveland on Sunday:
NEWTON IS TOUGH: We knew this already, but it will be hard for anyone to ever question Cam Newton's toughness after he started 12 days after a car accident left him with two fractures in his lower back. Not only did Newton play, but he ran 10 times for 64 yards before taking two knees late in the game to run out the clock. "The guy's a warrior," left tackle Byron Bell said. "He could have made any excuse not to play. He has a bad back, a bad ankle, the whole nine (yards)."
MANZIEL A WORK IN PROGRESS: The Browns were hoping Johnny Manziel would take a big step forward after a rough outing the previous week in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati. That didn't happen. Manziel was highly ineffective — just 3 of 8 for 32 yards — before leaving the game with a hamstring injury late in the first half. Coach Mike Pettine said Manziel wasn't productive and "it's just disappointing overall to lose your starting quarterback and have to shift gears midstream."
PANTHERS DEFENSE IMPROVING: Carolina's defense has been much improved in recent weeks and turned in another solid effort, holding the Browns to 228 yards and eight first downs on Sunday. They registered three sacks and forced one turnover. "It was just good pressure," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "Everybody realized that we had to get to them with pressure when Johnny Manziel was in there, that we had to contain him. When he went out, (Brian) Hoyer came in, so we could be more aggressive with our rushes and stuff."
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Panthers coach Ron Rivera went with a youth movement several weeks back and it has paid off big time. The Panthers added a number of rookies and first-year players to the lineup, including wide receiver Philly Brown and defensive backs Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere. "We thought we needed to get faster at a few positions," Rivera said. "We needed to get younger at a few positions. These were guys that were looking for the opportunity."
DECEMBER KIDS: The Panthers have now won 11 of their last 12 games in December under Rivera. "It is good to have a coach like him that speaks encouragement and (puts) belief into us," Stewart said.
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