Ok, I’ll admit… When the NFL first released their Thursday Night Football schedule, this week’s matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills for me personally stuck out as one of the least appealing. But now, with 4 weeks already in the books, my perception of the game turned a full 180 degrees. Both teams will enter the game with a 2-2 record, while the Browns are the bookies favorite at -4.
That’s how you can describe Cleveland’s last two performances!
It’s also the complete opposite of what everybody expected them to show us after an eventful Week 2 aftermath; including a winless record, the much debated trade of star running back Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick, and Brian Hoyer getting the advantage over veteran Jason Campbell to replace the injured starter Brandon Weeden. The general conception at that point was that the franchise was giving up on the season, and by doing so playing for a high draft pick to select one of next year’s top quarterbacks.
Hoyer and the Browns quickly proved us wrong, however, by winning their next two games against Minnesota and Cincinnati moving into a tie with Baltimore for a first place in the AFC North. In these outings Hoyer threw for a combined 590 yards, including five touchdowns and three interceptions. Head coach Rob Chudzinski announced that they would try to continue their run with the long time back up quarterback under center this week, even though Weeden is back on the practice field.
A big part of the Browns’ offensive arsenal is rookie revelation Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Josh Gordon. Cameron, who leads all tight ends with 30 receptions, already has five touchdowns and four of those come from the hand of Hoyer. Gordon, who was suspended the first two games for violating the NFL’s drug policy rules, caught 14 passes for 217 yards during his return with the team.
It’s safe to say that the danger will come from their 14th ranked passing attack, averaging 247.8 yards per game. Although the running game is slowly evolving after the signing of veteran running back Willis McGahee and the way they use all-around back Chris Ogbonnaya, they’re still ranked 27th overall, averaging 76.0 yards.
In the shadow of Hoyer’s attention is a defense that contributes a great deal to the team’s late success. They are ranked 4th in stopping the run allowing only 2.9 yards per carry, with inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson tackling almost everyone that crosses the line. Add cornerback Joe Haden to the mix and you have a secondary that can cover the best receivers in the league.
Buffalo’s ‘hurting backs’
Since the beginning of the season it was obvious that the running game, centered on pass-catching running back C.J. Spiller, would be the focal point of the Bills’ offense. In combination with a reliable backup in veteran Fred Jackson, EJ Manuel being a mobile quarterback, and searching for play-action opportunities targeting wide receivers Stevie Johnson and rookie Robert Woods, this is a scheme that already showed potential; since the Bills are ranked second in the NFL averaging 152 rushing yards per game.
However, Spiller is having a difficult year thus far. Dealing with a knee injury throughout the first couple of weeks, he hurt his ankle last week during Buffalo’s upset win against the Ravens. Spiller’s status for Thursday night’s game is still a mystery. Meanwhile Fred Jackson’s showing he’s still capable of carrying a heavy workload, running for 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 rushes in the same game, also suffered a knee injury. He did tell the media that without any major setbacks he’d be able to play against the Browns.
Keys to the game
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel struggled a bit in the last couple of weeks. Manuel completed only 45.3 percent of his passes for 410 yards, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions. To protect him from another possible bad game the Bills have to establish a run game. Considering the strength of the defense they’re facing and with Spiller and Jackson being banged up I fear that this isn’t going to happen. I don’t think Buffalo will be able to win this game if Manuel has to drop back the majority of the time throwing the football around. If Joe Haden can take away Stevie Johnson, who’s dealing with a hamstring issue, there’s a chance Cleveland could shut down the majority of Buffalo’s entire offense; which of course would be a disaster for the Bills.
Another key aspect to the game is the fact that the Bills’ defensive secondary is dealing with injuries as well. There’s a chance they could again be without starters Jairus Byrd and Leodis McKelvin.
Although intercepting Joe Flacco five times, it’s a different story facing a hot quarterback in Brian Hoyer who’s seemingly in harmony with his receiving corps while feeling comfortable in the flow of the Browns’ passing offense. Not to forget he will be having home field advantage with an ecstatic and excited cheering crowd.
Cleveland is 2-2-0 against the spread so far this season. With the line at -4 and the arguments mentioned above I’m convinced they will cover it this week.
William Hill has the over/under at 40 (-110). Keep an eye on the weather report. The forecast says that it will be very warm and humid during the day, with chances of a thunderstorm and/or rain showers later in the afternoon/evening. Rain could have an effect on the Browns’ passing offense. In combination with the possibility that their defense shuts down the Bills we might get a low scoring game, perhaps not surpassing 40 total points.