When the NFL schedule came out in April, not many people circled their calendars for the November 30 Browns-Bills matchup as a battle of two teams with winning records. But that’s where we are, as the 7-4 Browns and 6-5 Bills have been two of the more pleasant surprises in the AFC.
Here are three questions on this surprisingly intriguing game:
1. Can one of these teams make the playoffs?
The Browns haven’t been in a playoff game since a 36-33 loss to the Steelers on January 5, 2003. The only team that’s been out of the playoffs for longer? The Bills, whose last playoff game was the Music City Miracle on January 8, 2000.
This year, both of these teams remain alive late in the season, which in and of itself represents progress from where they’ve usually been in recent years. But only the Browns have a realistic chance of getting to the postseason.
Cleveland still controls its path to the playoffs and is guaranteed to get to the postseason if it wins out. And even if the Browns drop a game and go 4-1 the rest of the way, an 11-5 record would almost certainly be enough to make the playoffs. The Browns aren’t favorites to get to the postseason, but they have a very legitimate opportunity to do it.
The Bills, on the other hand, may have to settle for playing spoiler. At 6-5, the Bills are on the outside looking in, and they have a very rough schedule the rest of the way that includes games against the Broncos, Packers and Patriots. Buffalo is good enough to win at least one of those games and hurt some other team’s playoff chances, but probably not good enough to win all of those games, which is what it would probably take to reach the postseason.
2. Will Sammy Watkins make the Browns regret trading down?
Watkins said this week that he thought the Browns were going to take him, based on interest the Browns showed before the draft. But with the Browns on the clock and Watkins still on the board, Cleveland traded down with Buffalo, which took Watkins.
Now Watkins gets an opportunity to show the Browns what they missed out on. Watkins has had a good rookie season, although not quite the kind of great rookie season that he’d have to have to be worth the huge price the Bills paid (including next year’s first- and fourth-round picks) to move up and take him. If Watkins can have a big day in a big game against Cleveland, that would be a positive sign that Buffalo made the right call when they pulled the trigger on that very big trade.
But that won’t be easy against a good Browns pass defense. Watkins has been good this year, but the Cleveland secondary has been better. Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, who is leading the league with six interceptions, is out after suffering a knee injury last week, however, which gives the Bills some hope that Kyle Orton might be able to connect with Watkins deep down the middle of the field. Some big plays from Watkins could be just what the Bills’ offense needs.
3. What will Josh Gordon do for an encore?
In Gordon’s first game of the season last week, all he did was catch eight passes for 120 yards. Can he do even better than that in his second game?
He’s going to have a hard time topping himself for two reasons. First, the Bills’ schemes tend to clamp down on opposing No. 1 receivers, forcing teams to go to their second or third options. If the Bills are going to let any receiver beat them, it’s not going to be Gordon.
And even more importantly, the Bills’ pass rush is outstanding. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer is going to have a tough time staying upright when Mario Williams (12 sacks this season), Marcell Dareus (10) and Jerry Hughes (9.5) are coming after him. The Bills have the personnel to make Hoyer’s life miserable, which means that even if Gordon can get open, he may not get many passes thrown his way.