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Cam Newton on track to start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hasn't officially been cleared for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, but he remains on target to start after suffering two small fractures in his lower back during an automobile accident 10 days ago.

Coach Ron Rivera said Friday he felt "very comfortable and confident" that Newton will start, adding that his franchise quarterback still needs final clearance from the medical staff.

"Right now, everything is pointing in the right direction," Rivera said. "The reason I haven't said anything [definitive] is because of that one big thing, waiting for doctors to tell me they feel good about it."

Newton missed Sunday's 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay as he recovered from the crash that occurred on his way to Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 9.

Rivera said Newton's ability to protect himself would be the biggest factor in deciding whether he plays. He said the quarterback has done that in practice.

Newton has shown no sign of pain or restrictions in his movement since taking the practice field Wednesday.

"He did a lot of turning and twisting today," Rivera said. "We put a lot of pressure on it. We had to do some things on purpose just so we could see. He seems to be right on track. You guys saw him. He looked good during warm-ups.

"He's had no ill effects every morning."

Newton made it clear Thursday he was all right with whatever Rivera decided.

"If I can play, we all know I want to play," Newton said. "But at the end of the day, I won't jeopardize what we have the opportunity to do just because of my selfishness to say, 'Oooh, I'm a tough man.'"

With Newton on track to start and Johnny Manziel set to make his second start for Cleveland, this game will feature the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner against the 2012 winner. Newton is 3-1 against Heisman winners.

The Panthers (5-8-1) remain in the hunt for the NFC South title with New Orleans (6-8) and Atlanta (5-9). They need to win their final two games, along with a Saints loss, to win the division for a second straight year.

Rivera believes Newton gives the Panthers the best opportunity to win even though Derek Anderson is 2-0 as the starter this season in place of Newton.

"It adds another dimension," Rivera said. "He and DA are similar, but they are different. Cam obviously is a better runner. They both bring a lot to the table. What Cam does is he adds that extra dimension, the ability to run.

"That was big for us against New Orleans. He had a really good rhythm. We're hoping to recapture some of that. As long as we can continue to do those things and he can do them well, he'll stay out there."

Newton completed 21 of 33 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-10 victory at New Orleans in his last start. He rushed 12 times for 83 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those were designed plays.

"If there is any concern on my part, if he starts, we'll have to make a decision in terms of protecting him," Rivera said of Newton. "Right now, everything is pointing in the right direction. We're excited about how he's going to feel tomorrow. We think it's going to be good, and we'll go from there."

If Newton does play, he shouldn't count on any special treatment from the Browns.

"You're not going to lighten up just because he was [in a car accident]," Cleveland linebacker Paul Kruger said. "If he's ready to play, that means obviously he's not too injured."

ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report.

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