The Cleveland Browns are looking to get above .500 for the first time since Week 3 of 2011, and there is no better place to do it than on prime-time television. Each week has been a new first for quarterback Brian Hoyer, and this will be his first taste of the national spotlight.
The Browns have a 10-7 advantage all time against the Buffalo Bills and are 1-1 against them in prime-time action. This will be Cleveland’s only exposure on national television as they do not have a Sunday or Monday night game this season.
While Buffalo is banged up, it boasts the league’s second best rushing offense with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. With Spiller most likely not playing, Tashard Choice will need to fill the void.
The Browns, on the other hand, have the league’s stingiest rushing defense, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry. Something has to give, and one team will be entering Week 6 with a surprising 3-2 record.
The Competitive Edge
I never thought I would say this, but Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer is the better signal-caller right now. While E.J. Manuel looks to have serious upside, Hoyer has been in the league much longer and is making better decisions. He is coming off an impressive performance and will face a banged-up Buffalo secondary.
Even with C.J. Spiller likely out, the Bills still have a formidable rushing attack. Jackson and Choice will carry the load nicely. The Browns will have their hands full with the powerful and aggressive run-blocking line of the Bills.
Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson is in the top third of the league, but Josh Gordon of the Browns is already better. He is proving he can be a top-five wide receiver in the right situation and now has some help around him. Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin both made big plays in the passing game last week as well.
Browns tight end Jordan Cameron is quickly becoming an elite pass-catcher. Teams now have to scheme to try and take him away from Hoyer. While Scott Chandler of Buffalo is no slouch, Cameron is dominating. He has the third-most receiving yards, second-most touchdowns and second-most catches among tight ends in the NFL.
This category goes to the Bills easily. While they don’t have many household names, Cordy Glenn at left tackle is among the league’s elite. He is rated as the fifth best in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com (premium stats are behind pay wall).
Few teams are able to rate better than the Browns in this category. The rotation of Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and John Hughes is enough to still give them the edge even though Billy Winn will not play. This will be a power vs. power game against the Bills running backs.
This category once again goes to the Browns. While Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is near the top of the league in tackles and has four interceptions, he is the only playmaker in this unit. Even with rookie Barkevious Mingo playing all 68 snaps last week, the Browns still played at an elite level defensively.
The Browns get this category easily because of injuries. While some may play, the Bills have five players from their secondary on the injury report. They run an extremely complicated coverage system, and if you do not take care of the ball, they will turn you over. However, even after getting five interceptions last week, it would be a miracle if they could play to that level again.
Surprisingly, this category goes to Buffalo. Jim Leonard is a very good punt returner for the Bills and rivals the Browns’ Travis Benjamin. The tipping point is Buffalo kicker Dan Carpenter. The Bills signed him sight unseen before the preseason, which caused him to cancel his trip to Cleveland to work out. The Browns should have pounced on him. All he has done are go 10-of-11 and nail a 55-yarder.
Browns Offense vs. Bills Defense
The Browns should have plenty of opportunities on Thursday night. The Bills are near the bottom of the league in both passing and rushing defense and rank 28th overall. Once again, the Browns' ability to move the ball through the air will be predicated upon establishing some type of running game.
Last week, Willis McGahee showed he can still be a workhorse. The Browns do not need him to rush for 100 yards but rather keep the Bills honest. If he can get 15-20 carries per game, the Browns will be fine in that department.
Hoyer needs to be cautious through the air. The Bills run a complicated coverage scheme and disguise their intentions well. Even though there will be opportunities against an extremely injured secondary, Hoyer must choose them wisely.
The Browns should also dig into the bag of tricks. Last week, they broke out some Wildcat against the Cincinnati Bengals. At the very least, they should keep Benjamin involved in the offensive game plan.
Browns Defense vs. Bills Offense
This should be an interesting battle. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have combined for 486 yards on the ground this season. That is 182 more than the Browns have rushed for as an entire team. Unfortunately for Buffalo, Spiller is questionable for Thursday night.
If the Browns can limit the Bills' rushing attack, they will force quarterback E.J. Manuel into uncomfortable situations. He has thrown just three interceptions on the season but has also only thrown 130 passes.
The weather forecast looks good, but you can never be too sure on the shores of Lake Erie. Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was finally a full participant in practice on Wednesday. This should be a tight ballgame and could be decided by which team makes its field goals.
In the return game, wide receiver Greg Little did well last week with two returns for 60 yards. If he can consistently give the Brown better field position, it will take some pressure off Hoyer and the offense.
Finally, the game is on national television, so let’s hope the Browns throw in a fake or two juts for good measure.
What They’re Saying
Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on Tuesday said this about who will be the second-string QB:
“We have not yet, we’ll see. Today is our first day of an actual, true full speed practice. We’ll make that determination. We’ll see how (QB) Brandon (Weeden) does today and kind of where he’s at from that standpoint. Then we’ll have tomorrow. It’s not going to be 100-percent full speed, but it’ll be at a pretty good clip for practice tomorrow.”
Bill quarterback E.J. Manuel had this to say on whether he thought the Browns were interested in him during the draft:
“I did, I thought they may have been interested in taking a quarterback. Obviously they didn’t in this past draft though.”
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did not participate
Outside linebacker Quentin Groves (ankle), outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (knee) and defensive lineman Billy Winn (quad).
Winn is the only player from this group who has already been ruled out. The other two are doubtful. With a long week approaching after their prime-time game, the Browns may want to be extra cautious with all borderline injuries.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao (ankle) and defensive end John Hughes (knee).
Both players are listed as questionable for Thursday night’s game, and I doubt if Lauvao will be back. While he has said he is ready, the Browns line played much better last week. There is no reason to rush him back when there is a long week of rest ahead.
Hughes, on the other hand, is a key part of the defensive rotation. If he can play in any capacity, it will help against the Bills' stellar rushing attack.
Kicker Bill Cundiff (quad), offensive lineman Oniel Cousins (chest), quarterback Brandon Weeden (thumb) and running back Chris Ogbonnaya (thigh).
All these players were listed as probable for Thursday night. The only real question mark is whether or not Weeden will be the backup. Since he was a full participant in practice, he should easily step into the backup role.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
Breast Cancer Awareness month kicks off Thursday night in the NFL. Select players will be wearing pink equipment with their uniform to support the cause.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Barkevious Mingo is the first Browns player to record a sack in each of his first three NFL games.
Jordan Cameron’s five receiving touchdowns in September are tied for the most by a tight end in NFL history.
Brian Hoyer is the first quarterback to win his first two starts in a Browns uniform since Mark Rypien in 1994. Hoyer is also the first Browns quarterback with a win and at least two TD passes in each of his first two starts with the team since Vinny Testaverde in 1993.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ communications department.