Panthers top Browns to stay alive in NFC South race

Charlotte, NC ( - Cam Newton accounted for two touchdowns and the Carolina Panthers picked up a crucial win to set up a winner-take-all NFC South showdown next week.

Newton's 9-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Stewart in the fourth quarter was the difference, and Carolina topped the Cleveland Browns, 17-13, on Sunday.

The scoring strike to Stewart, which capped a 7-play, 66-yard drive, came less than three minutes after the Browns took their first lead on Brian Hoyer's 81- yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron.

Hoyer replaced Johnny Manziel late in the first half after the rookie exited with a hamstring injury.

"It felt like something I hadn't experienced before and needed to get checked out," said Manziel. "Pretty frustrating."

The Panthers (6-8-1) will travel to Atlanta next week with the division on the line. Whoever wins that game will clinch the NFC South and host a playoff game.

"In spite of the things we've gone through ... it all comes down to one game," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "I think we've shown some resilience and we've fought our way through it. I'm pleased with the fact that we have the opportunity."

The Falcons beat New Orleans to eliminate the Saints from postseason contention.

Newton, who missed the last game following a car accident, completed 18-of-31 for 201 yards while rushing 12 times for 63. Stewart gained 122 yards on the ground for the Panthers, winners in three straight games.

"The effort was tremendous, and it speaks to who he is," Rivera said. "It shows that the guys are behind him."

Manziel, whose struggles were well documented in his first career start last week, didn't fare any better on Sunday. He completed 3-for-8 passes for 32 yards before Hoyer came in. Hoyer, who started the first 14 games of the season, went 7-for-13 for 134 yards with a touchdown and an interception in relief.

"Offensively, not near good enough to win in this league," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "Made the one big play but other than that, never seemed to get into much of a rhythm."

The Browns (7-8) were officially eliminated from the postseason.

A puzzling decision by Newton midway through the third quarter gave Cleveland life. On 3rd-and-7 from the Browns 36, Newton danced around the pocket and kept the play alive before running across the field and wobbling a short pass to no one in particular. Defensive end Billy Winn made a diving interception.

Cleveland turned the interception into a 31-yard Garrett Hartley field goal, and Carolina's lead was down to 10-6.

Early in the fourth, Carolina appeared to catch a break when it kept possession despite consecutive fumbles. Newton coughed up the ball on first down and lineman Byron Bell pounced on it. Then, Philly Brown appeared to lose a fumble on a reverse, but the Panthers challenged the play and Brown was ruled down.

A punt two plays later pinned the Browns on their own 15-yard line but on 3rd- and-1, Hoyer hooked up with Cameron for the longest touchdown pass of his career.

The Panthers retook the lead on Stewart's touchdown reception, and his 30-yard run just after the two-minute warning sealed the game.

The Browns went three-and-out on two of Manziel's first three possessions. The lone sustained drive went 55 yards in 10 plays and ended with a 43-yard field goal by Hartley.

Graham Gano made up for an earlier miss and opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal at 2:47 of the first quarter. Hartley's kick tied the game at 3-3, and Newton's 2-yard touchdown run late in the first half gave Carolina a 10-3 lead at the break.

Game Notes

Newton improved to 4-1 against former Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks ... Cleveland played without starting cornerbacks Joe Haden (right shoulder) and Justin Gilbert (concussion) ... Hoyer's TD pass was the first Browns passing touchdown since Nov. 16 ... The Browns have lost 11 straight games in December and January.