So why is there this underlying feeling of trepidation? Welcome to Cleveland Browns football. This Browns team appears to struggle in the favorite role and thrive when labeled the underdogs.
Think about it. This season, when the Browns were considered to have no chance beating New Orleans and New England — two Ws. Remember when the Browns were expected to start the season 2-0? Try 0-2.
Buffalo, like Cleveland, is a team with a below-.500 record, but contending teams do not want to play. Some of the NFL's best teams have had close calls against these Bills.
- New England won 38-30 on Sept. 26.
- Baltimore won 37-34 in overtime on Oct. 24.
- Kansas City won 13-10 in overtime on Oct. 31.
- Chicago won 22-19 on Nov. 7.
- Pittsburgh won 19-16 in overtime on Nov. 28.
While Cleveland has been able to pull off some close games this year, Buffalo ends up on the losing end in these situations. A big reason why is something the Browns have struggled with in season's past: The Bills can't defend the run.
Buffalo is last in the NFL allowing 2,051 yards rushing this season. The next closest team, Denver, allowed 308 fewer rushing yards. Opponents are averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 170.9 yards rushing per game.
Cleveland is 14th in the NFL averaging 111.4 yards rushing a game. As a team, the Browns have 1,337 yards rushing on 331 carries (4.2 average) and 15 touchdowns.
In recent weeks, the Browns have played stout front sevens and opposing defensive coordinators have decided in order to stop the Browns offense, stop Peyton Hillis.
On Nov. 21, Jacksonville's defense keyed on Hillis and two weeks later Miami did the same. Hillis rushed for 48 yards on 21 carries against the Jaguars and had 57 yards on 18 carries against the Dolphins. The good news is the last time the Browns faced an opponent among the league's worst defending the run — Carolina on Nov. 28 — Hillis went for 131 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns.
"They're a good defense," Hillis said. "They have got a couple of good pass rushers, big guys up front in the d-line. It's just going to be another game that we have to prepare for and go out and execute. No matter what the conditions are, we have to go out there and do that."
If the Browns can effectively run the ball, and thanks to those aforementioned stats it appears as if they can, it keeps the hands out of the Bills offense.
Yes, the vaunted Bills offense.
First, we interrupted this game preview with a weather report for Sunday, Dec. 12. Hollie Strano was unavailable so I'll do my best: Temperatures in the upper 20s with south winds 10-12 mph and a chance of precipitation 90 percent.
"I really do love this weather," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "I think it's great football weather and I think if you know how to play in it and it doesn't because a factor and it doesn't affect any part of our game then it becomes a real advantage, but you have to get used to it."
Weather concerns aside, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has emerged to become the team's No. 1 quarterback. No questions asked. Fitzpatrick is 207-for-355 passing for 2,384 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
"He definitely does a good job of looking off of his receivers," Haden said. "Some quarterbacks are locked in, but he does a really good job of not keeping his eyes on his receivers. He definitely could throw the safety off."
Yet if that weather forecast holds true, the Bills will need to run the game and it is something they've done with success. Buffalo rushed for 134 against the Patriots, 137 against the Chiefs and combined to rush for 350 in back-to-back wins over Detroit and Cincinnati. No shock there.
What is a shock is that rookie C.J. Spiller out of Clemson has not made an instant impact. He has only 199 yards on 48 carries while Fred Jackson leads the team with 663 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 152 attempts.
"I like coaching all the time but I love the bad weather," Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "I'm a bad weather guy, built for it. Really, it's fun. Someone just told me we're in December. The great thing is in the NFL, December it's always the toughest guys win and the best coaches win so (shoot) we're going to be great. Our defense is as tough as there is, our players are tough and we got the best coaches so we're looking forward to this month."