Having lost four of their last five games to drop from first to worst in the AFC East, the Bills are feeling a sense of desperation. At 0-3 in the division and 5-4 overall, their margin for error in a tight playoff picture has all but disappeared.
But even this dire situation can't squelch the excitement the team's coaching staff and players are feeling heading into Monday night's game against Cleveland (3-6) at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Call it the power of Monday Night Football.
Yes, Buffalo isn't the golden child everybody thought when the team started 4-0. But the town and the stadium will still be rocking as the Bills host their Lake Erie neighbor.
"It's really an exciting week, obviously, to be back on Monday Night Football," coach Dick Jauron said. "The squad's excited about it, the community's excited about it. We just have to get ourselves ready and play our best game and hopefully, that's what we'll do."
The Bills appeared on MNF for the first time since 2000 and hosted a MNF game for the first time since 1994 when they faced the Dallas Cowboys last season. Dallas rallied for a 25-24 win on Oct. 8, kicking the winning field goal as time expired.
As if the memory of that game wasn't enough extra motivation for Buffalo, the Browns lining up across the field will ignite another one from a year ago. In December, with both clubs fighting for a playoff berth, the Bills lost at Cleveland 8-0 on Dec. 16, a weird and wild game played in a blizzard and 16-degree wind chill.
"I know I definitely thought about that this week," Bills center Duke Preston said of that Browns game. "We were out there with a chance to keep our playoff hopes alive and that pretty much ended it for us. Right now, where we are at, we kind of owe them one and Monday night would be a perfect time to get that done."
For defensive tackle Kyle Williams, he's still thinking about the Dallas loss.
"It was an unbelievable experience," he said. "Our fans were incredible. We played really well for 59 minutes, but that is the way it goes. You have to finish the game. We are excited and looking forward to it again, getting an opportunity to go out there and right the ship."
Adding to the buzz on Wednesday was strong safety Donte Whitner's surprise return to the practice field after separating his shoulder just 10 days ago against the New York Jets. He worked on a limited basis, raising the possibility he might play Monday.
It's a good guess that Whitner is willing himself back; he's a Cleveland native eager to play on the national stage against his hometown Browns.
"I'm sure it was a factor, but with Donte, you almost have to hold him back all of the time," Jauron said. "He hates to miss practice so it drives him crazy not to play in a game."
Offensive guard Brad Butler, who has missed two games with a knee injury, also returned to practice.
Quinn has been patiently waiting his turn to play and got it last week against Denver when he replaced Derek Anderson and threw for 239 yards with two touchdowns and a 104.3 rating. But the Browns lost 34-30 after Jay Cutler rallied the Broncos with three TDs in the final 15 minutes.
Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said he's too concerned about his wilting defense to spend too much time worrying about Quinn.
"My focus has really been on the Buffalo Bills more so than Brady Quinn and how we can get better and how we can finish drives and how we can execute the little details so we can become a better defensive football team," Fewell said. "And if we do that, then we will take care of Brady."
Edwards, who has seven turnovers during Buffalo's three-game losing streak, said the hoopla of Monday night would provide a needed shot in the arm for the team and maybe his arm in particular.
"I hope that guys are going to be ready to play," he said. "I know I am and I know all of our fans are going to be ready to go. We need to be able to put on a show and I think the fact that it's a nationally televised game, I think that we're going to be able to be ready and mentally be ready to go because it's such a big stage."
Having played each other a year ago, the Bills and Browns have some familiarity that can be useful. As for the game tape of that 8-0 slopfest, well, that's debatable.
"I'm going to be honest, I have never even watched that tape. The filming, the footage of the film, you can't even see what's going on and you can't even tell where everything is," Edwards said.
In that case, we'll go to the stat sheet. Edwards and Anderson were a combined 22 of 57 passing. The difference was the Browns making a few critically important plays and running back Jamal Lewis rambling for 163 yards on 33 carries.
While he acknowledges that his team is in a "slump," a pretty enlightening statement for someone as bland and guarded as Jauron, he said he's looking forward and not back, knowing there are still seven games to play and much can happen.
"We've got to take what we have and we've got to throw ourselves into this thing and do everything we can to focus on this game," Jauron said. "That's been our approach to every game all year. The fact that we're on a national stage, you would hope that it wouldn't motivate anybody any more or any less because every week in this league, you are fighting for your life. (But) everybody knows Monday Night Football. Everybody knows all of their friends and family across the country, they're all going to be watching on Monday night, so we will get them up a little more because they get up for games. Our opponent will be too. It should be a lot of fun."
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Browns lead 8-5 including a 3-2 record in Buffalo. The teams have met once before on Monday night. On Oct. 2, 1995, the Bills won at Cleveland, 22-19. QB Jim Kelly completed 27 of 34 for 256 yards and two touchdowns and K Steve Christie converted the winning field goal with five seconds remaining in the game.
--MLB Paul Posluszny, the second-year pro out of Penn State, has been among the few bright spots on Buffalo's defense in recent weeks. With 56 solo tackles, he's now tied for third place among AFC linebackers and he's the youngest player among a group that includes Oakland's Kirk Morrison (58), Denver's D.J. Williams (57) and Indianapolis' Gary Brackett (56). True to form, Posluszny isn't patting himself on the back. He's still reeling from New England's 19-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that sealed last week's win over Buffalo, and dropped the Bills from first to last in the AFC East. A week earlier, the Jets put together a long fourth-quarter drive to kick the clinching field goal. "They just executed better than we did and they were better with their details," Posluszny said of the Patriots. "We have got to buckle down. Everyone has to take care of his assignment. We have to find a way to get off the field."
--Browns veteran RB Jamal Lewis remains as tough as ever to play against. He has 593 yards and four TDs on 167 carries but his history is to pick things up in the second halves of seasons. Last year, he gained 789 yards over the final seven games. He gained 163 of that against Buffalo in an 8-0 win in the snow at Browns Stadium. "Jamal Lewis is Jamal Lewis," Bills veteran DT Marcus Stroud said. "He's been a good back in this league for a while. He's a downhill runner. You know exactly what he's going to get. He's a good power back with some speed, so we have to go out there and gang-tackle him and tackle well and hopefully, like you said, get some turnovers and try and get the ball out."
--Rookie WR James Hardy, who made a nice adjustment on a jump-ball pass at the goal line in New England last week to score his second touchdown, admitted afterward that he entered the NFL not feeling very prepared. He starred at Indiana in the Big Ten and caught plenty of passes. But it's not the same, he said. "Certain universities you get taught how to play in the NFL from the routes that you run and the schemes," he said. "At Indiana, we didn't learn any of that stuff and this has been a new beginning for me coming here. I'm just trying to get adjusted and catch up as fast as I can."
--RB Fred Jackson on what it takes to dictate the flow of a game: "We have to get our swagger back. Going into these past couple of weeks, we haven't had that normal swagger. We're going to try to get that back because that's when we were going out, having fun and we were making plays when we were doing that. So I think that's something we want to address, just getting that swagger back and getting back to how we were playing when we were 4-0."
--OG Derrick Dockery has put together an impressive streak of starts at left guard. He's at 86 heading into Monday night's tilt with Cleveland, the sixth-best streak among active guards. Pittsburgh's Alan Faneca and Houston's Chester Pitts have started 105 consecutive games.
--The Bills are 5-4 but nobody's partying. In addition to the club losing four of its last five games, there is the realization that Buffalo's schedule this season is the fifth easiest in the NFL based on opponents' 2007 records. That winning percentage is .449. New England is playing the easiest schedule -- .387.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1-6 -- Bills' all-time record on Nov. 7, the date of Monday's game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Work. There are not a lot of miracles in our game. There are not a lot of solutions. Everything that you can possibly talk about always comes down to work. That's all we have to offer. That's all I have to offer. We talk about it. We just come back to work. Do we try and work smarter? Yes we do. Do we try to focus on the details? Absolutely. Do we stress it? Every day. So, what else is there? What do you do? Do you analyze our scheme? Yes we do. We look at it all. It comes down to work and then execution on the field. That's what it is. That's really all there is. Does it involve talent? Absolutely. Is it always equal? Not always. Everybody's pretty good in our business." -- Coach Dick Jauron, when asked what the defense needs to do better to prevent clock-killing fourth-quarter drives.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The addition of veteran LB Teddy Lehman provides some much-needed veteran experience at a position hit hard by injuries.
Angelo Crowell and John DiGiorgio are each on season-ending injured reserve with knee injuries. None of Buffalo's backups behind Paul Posluszny, Kawika Mitchell and Keith Ellison have been in the NFL more than two years. Lehman was a 2004 second-round pick of the Detroit Lions when Dick Jauron was defensive coordinator. In four seasons, he appeared in 41 games with 16 starts for Detroit, making 165 tackles with two interceptions, before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent last offseason. It was a bad career move. Lehman was cut in July, re-signed by Detroit, and cut again. He sat by his phone and the Bills eventually called.
"Teddy Lehman's an experienced backer in the league and he's experienced in our system, so it'll help us," Jauron said. "Obviously, when you look at our linebacker group, the three backups are not very experienced at all, so we thought it was a good opportunity to add somebody. We had a roster spot available and Teddy's a high-quality guy, he'll fit in with us and I think he'll help us. He'll definitely give us a little more comfort in terms of experience."
Lehman should help on special teams immediately. He worked on special teams Wednesday in practice.
"I really like the special teams coach," he said of Bobby April, an opinion shared by many. "We play some pretty good teams, so hopefully I can help."
--DE Aaron Schobel, who has missed four games with a foot injury, did not practice again. He's doubtful for Monday's game.
--WR Josh Reed, who has missed two games, did not practice due to his ankle injury. He's still a ways off but is making progress.
--WR James Hardy did not practice due to a sore hip. He's day-to-day but should be OK for Monday's game against Cleveland.
--SS Donte Whitner, who sat out last week's game against New England with a separated shoulder, was able to practice on a limited basis. His status will be monitored all week but with an extra day of rest this week, could be ready by Monday to face the Browns.
--OG Brad Butler (knee), who missed three games with a knee injury, took part in all practice drills and is expected to start Monday against the Browns barring any setbacks.
--The Bills signed CB Dustin Fox to their practice squad. He was a member of last season's practice squad until spending the final six weeks of the year on the active roster. He's appeared in seven career NFL games. Buffalo needed some emergency depth with Ashton Youboty going on injured reserve last week.
--OL Chris Denman was released from the practice squad to make room for CB Dustin Fox.
GAME PLAN: The Bills limp home with a three-game losing streak but the bright lights of Monday Night Football and the roar of the home crowd should be the cure for what ails them. That, and the fact it's the equally struggling Browns they face. Buffalo's anemic 28th-ranked rushing offense has a golden opportunity to get in gear and control the tempo of a game for a change against Cleveland's No. 26 run defense. That's providing enough helmets get on NT Shaun Rogers and ILB D'Qwell Jackson. A solid running game is the only way QB Trent Edwards snaps out of his three-game funk. As for Buffalo's defense, the task is to clean up its sloppy tackling and find a way to pressure young Browns QB Brady Quinn, who has weapons in Jamal Lewis, Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards to get into a rhythm and find his confidence. If the Bills allow that to happen, they'll lose.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bills DE Ryan Denney, playing in place of an injured Aaron Schobel and who may be Buffalo's best pass rusher right now, vs. Browns LT Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Bills secondary, which has a healthy Terrence McGee back but may still be missing SS Donte Whitner, vs. Browns young QB Brady Quinn, who faces a big MNF test on the road.
Bills MLB Paul Posluszny, who is putting together a solid sophomore season, vs. Browns RB Jamal Lewis, a rugged downhill runner who will come right at the Bills.
Bills C Duke Preston and the struggling interior of Buffalo's offensive line vs. Browns NT Shaun Rogers, who leads his team with four sacks but is nursing a sore neck.
Bills QB Trent Edwards, who has five interceptions in his last three games, vs. Browns CB Eric Wright, who has a team-leading three interceptions.
INJURY IMPACT: SS Donte Whitner practiced on a limited basis after missing one game with a separated shoulder. The extra workday helps but he's still a longshot to be in the lineup Monday night against Cleveland, and if he is, one has to wonder about his ability to make sound tackles, especially against a runner as bruising as Jamal Lewis.
Bryan Scott started in his place against New England and performed adequately. With six games still to play after this one, the Bills do not need to rush Whitner back before he's ready. But it will be difficult to keep the Cleveland native out of the lineup.