In three of the last four meetings between the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns, the victorious team has scored 13 or fewer points. We're talking final scores of 8-0, 6-3 and 13-6, folks. These two football teams have produced some spectacularly crappy Sunday afternoon entertainment in recent seasons.
That said, that may change tomorrow afternoon, as this game features two of the most explosive young running backs in the league and two defenses that have been prone to giving up big plays through two games.
A litmus test. The Bills fancy themselves a playoff contender. If they're going to live up to that billing, this is a game that they have to win. Period. That doesn't make this a "must win" game, but even the most optimistic people in the building - not to mention fans - will have a hard time buying into the notion of the post-season if the team can't beat Cleveland on the road. There's just no way getting around that, and that's meant as no disrespect to a talented Browns team, either.
CLE offense vs. BUF defense. Really, Bills fans should be pretty familiar with the makeup of Cleveland's offense, as it's pretty much what the Bills have: a solid O-Line, a stud running back and a questionable passing game. Cleveland's offensive line is among the best in the business, rookie running back Trent Richardson is a star in the making, and the passing attack helmed by rookie Brandon Weeden and a no-name cast of receivers is very suspect.
Buffalo's game plan will be simple: contain the run, prevent the big play and force Weeden to beat them. That's the goal pretty much any time you play a rookie quarterback, but it's significant against the Browns because Richardson is so talented.
BUF offense vs. CLE defense. Right now, Buffalo's offense is all about C.J. Spiller. Responsible for 47.3 percent of Buffalo's yardage gained through two games, Spiller is also the NFL's leading rusher and at the forefront of the league's No. 1 running game. With a healthy and improving young offensive line in front of him, the Bills have leaned heavily on Spiller in the early portions of the season.
Dick Jauron and the Browns' defense would be pretty thick to not be fully aware of that. Jauron's style of defense is an interesting matchup against Chan Gailey's offense, because Jauron isn't prone to exotic looks or wild variations in personnel packages. In the early goings, at least, expect him to keep seven defenders in the box as much as possible against Gailey's spread formations to try to force the Bills into passing the football, where they have struggled.
What the film says: Richardson is the engine that makes Cleveland's offense go. This guy is highly skilled, with a rare blend of agility and power. He is going to cause problems for the Bills, who will need to be extremely sound in the front seven not just with their assignments, but with their tackling - otherwise, Richardson will rip off big chunks of yardage on them.
Cleveland can be thrown on, and their opponents know it. Michael Vick and Andy Dalton attempted a combined 87 passes in the Browns' first two games (Vick had 56 of them), and while the Browns have picked off five passes (four of them from Vick), they've also surrendered 635 passing yards and five touchdowns. Right now, Cleveland's passing defense is ranked No. 28 in the league. (Buffalo's, by comparison, is No. 23.) Still, expect the Browns to lean on its secondary as it tries to fortify its run defense to slow down Spiller and the run game.
Key matchup for Buffalo: Stevie Johnson vs. Browns cornerbacks. As much as fans (and even some media members) won't like to hear it, Buffalo really should attack Cleveland's secondary on Sunday. That's a very suspect group of corners, and as good as Spiller has been, we haven't seen him produce when defenses are keying on him, as is bound to happen. In particular, getting Johnson involved early and often will be a priority, as this will be one of the few weeks that Johnson won't be matched up against a top-flight cornerback thanks to the suspension of Joe Haden. If ever there was a week for Johnson to produce big, this is it.
Key matchup for Cleveland: Browns O-Line vs. Bills D-Line. Cleveland will struggle to be competitive on offense if they can't get Richardson going. They've had little trouble doing so (when Richardson has been fully healthy, anyway) thanks to their excellent offensive line. Buffalo's defensive line, as you well know, is also quite talented, however - and they're coming off of a strong performance in Week 2 against Kansas City. Buffalo absolutely has to control the point of attack against Cleveland's offense; if they don't, Richardson will get hot and it'll make life for Weeden easy.
The Bottom Line: Buffalo has a more talented team than Cleveland. They have a better offense and a higher-upside defense. Yet they've also lost eight straight road games, and have yet to compete in a competitive-for-four-quarters game this year. That could put them at a disadvantage against a Browns team that has quite a bit of talent, as well. Still, as we mentioned up top: this is a game that the Bills have to win if they want to make the playoffs. Seeing how they handle their business in a very interesting and underrated matchup on the road will go a long way toward determining whether or not they have what it takes to get there.