By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
1. Can the Bills run the ball with their top two backs hobbled? Both C.J. Spiller (ankle) and Fred Jackson (knee) will be far below 100 percent, and there's a chance neither will play. In the short week, Jackson was able to do a bit more work than Spiller, and coach Doug Marrone said he felt pretty good about Jackson playing, but it's a tenuous situation. Even if both play, it might take only one hit to knock them out, so the Bills may have to rely on third-stringer Tashard Choice. The good news for the Bills? Last year, Choice gained 91 yards against the Browns when both Spiller and Jackson were sidelined.
2. How will Buffalo's rookies fare under the glare of the national spotlight? EJ Manuel, Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso are all headed for the NFL's all-rookie team if they keep playing the way they have in their first four pro games. Last week, all played significant roles in Buffalo's upset of Baltimore. Now they're in prime time, with everyone watching, and it will be interesting to see how they perform on the big stage. My sense is they'll be fine because they've all been on big stages in college.
3. Are the Bills ready for the Brian Hoyer show? The heretofore nondescript quarterback who had bounced from New England to Arizona to Cleveland and had thrown just 96 NFL passes before this year is now the Browns' starter and he's off to a 2-0 start. Hoyer has completed 60 percent of his passes with 5 TDs and 3 interceptions in victories over Minnesota and Cincinnati, an out-of-nowhere success story that has Cleveland abuzz. Will midnight strike for Hoyer, or will the Bills fall prey to his mysterious powers?
... and Out
The Bills don't have to travel far - coach Doug Marrone joked that the plane might not even get above 10,000 feet for this trip - but the fact remains that road teams are generally at a greater disadvantage for these God-awful Thursday night games than they are for regular Sunday roadies. The short work week, coupled with having to travel, limits prep time and practice. More pressing for the Bills will be finding a way to help Manuel succeed in the passing game if the running game is handicapped too much by the injuries to Spiller and Jackson. Manuel may need to play his best game to date against a Cleveland defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 1 in yards per rushing play. One of the keys will be Stevie Johnson snapping to attention and winning his matchup with Browns CB Joe Haden, and another key will be the line giving Manuel time to throw. I'm not sure either of those things will happen.
My pick: Browns 17, Bills 16.