In mid-December, football on the Lake Erie shore in Cleveland generally means playing out the string, with no one paying attention outside of Cleveland and Browns fans scattered around the globe.
Now, with three games remaining in the season, the Cleveland Browns are closing in a significant achievement. The playoffs loom as a possibility - closer to a probability - for a Cleveland organization which was targeting 2008 as their breakthrough season before the campaign began.
Meaningful Cleveland Browns football is a great story, especially in mid-December. The winds will be howling at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but the howling of Mother Nature should be no match for 72,000-plus fans in attendance. The team hopes and expects that their fans will raise the noise level in Cleveland a couple-hundred decibels.
The story of this day could very well be the ability of the Cleveland defense to stop the persistent rushing attack of the Buffalo Bills. While their offensive numbers do not jump off the sheet, the Bills are a methodical offense that will attempt to manage the clock and minimize turnovers. The explosiveness of the Bills offense has been derailed somewhat with the demotion to J.P. Losman, which leads to Buffalo starting a rookie, Trent Edwards at quarterback.
Edwards has been efficient, and the Buffalo offense under his direction has taken on an increasingly conservative look. Buffalo looks to lure the opposition into a lull of rushing the football, then will unexpectedly look for a tight-end in the seam or speedy wide receiver Lee Evans on a ‘go' route. They will play the game close to the vest and attempt to eliminate big plays by the opposition.
In spending some time in the Buffalo area recently, I gained an increased appreciation of this team. The Buffalo Bills are almost like a sister of the Cleveland Browns squad. Not as interesting to talk to, perhaps, and not quite as cute. But clearly related.
The Browns grab the attention of the room. They play an exciting brand of football, utilizing one of the most explosive vertical passing games in the league. The Cleveland attack is on the verge of balance, with the commitment of rushing the football becoming evident as veteran Jamal Lewis shows his worth in the Browns late season surge to respectability.
The Bills approach isn't as flashy and TV-friendly. They would rather run the ball 40 times, hold the ball 36 minutes, and come away with a 17-13 victory. They've been partly successful: Buffalo averages 17-plus points per game, and surrenders just over 22 points per game while maintaining possession approximately 28:30 per contest.
Against a Cleveland team that averages 27.7 points per game while surrendering 27.4 points per game, something will have to give.
The Buffalo Bills are deserving of their status as a potential playoff squad. Head coach Dick Jauron has molded a team of achievers that have bought into his hard-nosed style of play and personality.
This game Sunday in Cleveland is one of vast importance for both teams. For the Browns, a victory will get the team on the cusp of the playoffs. A Buffalo victory moves the Bills up a slot and improves their playoff hopes.
As impressive as the Cleveland offense has been and can be, it is the Browns defense which raises questions about the validity of this team as a playoff caliber team. Surrendering approximately 28 points per game, the Browns have won due to an evolving offense that is productive in spite of itself and a slowly improving and opportunistic defense, which seems to rise to the occasional in crucial situations.
On most game days in the National Football League, the team that makes the least mistakes generally wins the game. In Cleveland on Sunday it will come down to this traditional factor, as well as the Browns ability to stop the run. If the Browns play a solid game in both respects, they and their fans will be celebrating a virtual playoff birth and, just maybe, another shot at the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in January.