By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
If there's anything Major League Baseball needed to increase its television ratings for the start of its postseason, it's a Thursday night NFL Network game between the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns.
No offense to fellow western New Yorkers or northwest Ohioans, but let's be honest, Bills-Browns won't exactly reverberate much beyond the eastern and western shores of Lake Erie. Every team gets a primetime game these days, and the NFL must have figured it would kill two birds with one stone by matching the Bills and the Browns, two of the league's most downtrodden franchises who aren't exactly glitzy draws.
Funny thing about this game, though, is that it actually isn't as bad a matchup as even the NFL might have thought it would be. Those who decide to watch baseball, or anything else, might want to check back occasionally on the goings-on at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Thanks to Buffalo's 23-20 upset over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens last week and Cleveland's equally surprising 17-6 triumph over in-state rival Cincinnati, both teams are 2-2 and riding a little crest of momentum.
Also, these clubs have a collection of pretty interesting young players who will be eager to show off their wares in front of a national cable TV audience.
"I think we all like this situation that we're in," said Bills wideout Stevie Johnson. "We don't get many times to play on national televised games, so this is big for us. So hopefully we can go out there, show who we are, get a 'W' and let the world know we're for real."
Doug Marrone is downplaying the fact that it's also his primetime debut as an NFL head coach (same thing for rookie Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski), but he recognizes that it's a big deal to his players, particularly the youngest guys like rookies EJ Manuel, Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso.
"I think I would be lying if I don't think there's awareness from a player's standpoint to know that all the other players that are not playing on Thursday are probably watching that game," he said.
What the Bills would like to show their contemporaries around the league is that they can continue to survive on defense despite a crippling spate of injuries in the secondary. All signs point to cornerback Leodis McKelvin not playing due to a hamstring injury, and the status of Aaron Williams, the strong safety who was asked to take McKelvin's place, is questionable due to a lower back injury.
The Bills might get free safety Jairus Byrd back, at least on a limited basis, but that won't help the dire situation at corner if both McKelvin and Williams are out. It means a steady diet of Justin Rogers, Nickell Robey, Brandon Burton and Johnny Adams.
Thankfully, the opposing quarterback isn't one of the NFL's elite, though that group of no-name DBs helped make Baltimore's Joe Flacco look pretty silly last week on his way to throwing a career-high five interceptions.
The Bills are confronted with Brian Hoyer, Cleveland's third-string quarterback who jumped over second-stringer Jason Campbell when Brandon Weeden got hurt a couple weeks ago. Hoyer, a native of Cleveland who has really energized Browns fans, was a backup to Tom Brady in New England for three years and then a backup to Kevin Kolb in Arizona last year. He has only three NFL starts, but in his last two - against Minnesota and Cincinnati the last two weeks - he has engineered victories.
"I don't know what difference they bring between him and Weeden, but the one thing that we see is that obviously they've won two games, they're playing extremely well, he's managing the game and they're winning with him," said Marrone.
When the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, to Indianapolis a few weeks ago, it looked as if they were running up the white flag on the season after an 0-2 start. Instead, the team signed ex-Bill Willis McGahee to take Richardson's place, Hoyer was given the starting nod, and the Browns have come alive on offense with Hoyer working well with tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Davone Bess.
"Well, it was a spark I was hoping for in naming him the starter," said Chudzinski. "He's played well. He hasn't been perfect, but he has gotten better from the first game to the second game. He's been able to be around some outstanding coaches and players as well, and learned, and obviously taken advantage of those opportunities."
The Bills' offense will be challenged by a stout Cleveland defense that ranks third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and has held opponents to 2.9 yards per rush, lowest in the league. And if C.J. Spiller and/or Fred Jackson can't play, or at least play competitively due to injuries, the task will really be difficult for Manuel, who is still finding his way and hasn't played a consistently sound game yet.
"They do a great job flying to the ball, they do a great job covering deep, their safeties are going to try playing the box to try and stop the run," Manuel said. "I think we have some things we can do against them to counter that."