In perhaps their most anticipated game since the season finale of the 2004 season, the Buffalo Bills will look to continue their improbable playoff run tomorrow when they travel to Cleveland to square off with the 8-5 Browns. Considered by many to be a play-in game of sorts for the playoffs (although the Titans may have something to say to that), the Bills face an uphill climb against a Browns team chock-full of offensive talent.
But it's December. The weather is going to be bad - high of 36, winds reaching 25-35 miles per hour, and 5 to 8 inches of what is being called a "wintry mix". In other words, football weather. Anything can happen tomorrow - is it really out of the question to believe that the Bills can find a way to beat long odds once again and keep their playoff dreams alive? They can if they adhere to the following:
Offense: Pound the Rock
It's going to be difficult to throw the football consistently tomorrow - especially for rookie quarterback Trent Edwards. That's not to say that plays can't be made through the air; in fact, the Bills may have an opportunity to score some points via the pass. But the inclement weather won't allow for the passing attack to be consistent enough to move the chains as routinely as it has when Edwards has been in the lineup. That's why the recent discovery of Fred Jackson is so important to the outcome of tomorrow's game.
Buffalo needs to keep Cleveland's offense off the field, and by extension, keep their defense fresh. That means that the dual rushing threat of Marshawn Lynch and Jackson will be unleashed in an attempt to accomplish just that. Buffalo may be forced to pass early to set up the run - and that's fine, as the weather is likely going to get worse as the game progresses - but make no mistake, the Bills are going to run the ball often and hard.
Players to Watch: RB Marshawn Lynch, RB Fred Jackson, WR Josh Reed
Defense: Avoid the Big Play
The Browns have a great offensive line, and it's been the catalyst for a big-play offense that features explosive targets Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. The lifeblood of the offense for the past few weeks, however, has been RB Jamal Lewis (406 rush yards, 3 TD in last four games). When Lewis is on, Cleveland's offense is incredibly difficult to stop; look for the Browns to establish Lewis early and attempt to maintain balance throughout the day.
Buffalo's Cover-2 defense will eliminate most deep passes from Cleveland's arsenal, so look for Winslow to be targeted by QB Derek Anderson early and often. Edwards may struggle making big plays - his specialty at home this season - but he's still a lethal red zone threat, even if the Bills manage to keep him mostly under wraps. Getting pressure on Anderson via the blitz will help keep Anderson's pass attempts short; all of Cleveland's targets are big athletes, so wrapping up and limiting YAC will be of the utmost importance as well.
Players to Watch: DE Aaron Schobel, LB Angelo Crowell, SS Donte Whitner
Special Teams: Play the Hester Rule
Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs leads the league with 52 kick returns, a 31-yard average and two scores on the season. The former college quarterback at Kent State has developed into one of the most explosive special teams threats in the league, and is going to be a handful for Buffalo's shaky kick return units. Look for the Bills to kick away from Cribbs in an effort to keep him from making an impact.
If Cribbs is able to make big plays via the return game, the Bills' two return men - Terrence McGee and Roscoe Parrish - will need to counter with big plays of their own. Parrish, with his agility and quickness, will be especially difficult to defend on a slick surface. In a game that looks to have all the makings of a shootout, the return units - on both sides of the ball - have a good shot at making a huge difference.
Players to Watch: KR Terrence McGee, PR Roscoe Parrish, S John Wendling