Game 12 Preview: @Buffalo

I’ve got the flu, so this will be shorter and less detailed than normal. But, honestly, I don’t think I need to go into too much detail. The three NFL teams with the longest playoff drought are the Browns (lost wild card in 2002), the Raiders (lost Super Bowl in 2002) and Buffalo (lost wild card in 1999).

After firing GM Bill Polian after their third consecutive Super Bowl loss in 1992), the the Bills gradually slid downhill. Draft boss John Butler, who was promoted to replace Polian, stemmed the bleeding for a while– the Bills went 74-54 from 1993-2000.  But after coach Marv Levy (who was 72) retired in 1997, the Bills have cycled through some terrible coaches:

Phillips, Jauron and Gailey had all been fired… the best you could say was that Gailey had a winning record in Dallas, and Phillips had gone .500 in Denver. Williams was highly-regarded as a defensive coach; some people thought Mularkey was qualified.

I have no ides why Jauron– who went 35-45 in five seasons with the Bears, got another shot.

In this era, it simply isn’t excusable to have a string of losing years:

  • Shared revenue gives every team an equal financial footing
  • The salary cap limits what any team can spend– which forces teams to relinquish players they would prefer to keep.
  • Free agency and the draft give every team a chance to add players.

A well-run team can get better in a single year.

The issue is that owner Ralph Wilson– who died in Marc- was simply a terrible owner. He demanded to talk to his football people, force his advice on them and have them explain why (if they didn’t want to take it) they wouldn’t comply.

Nobody likes to work for a guy who demands that.

With Wilson gone, it’s hard to imagine anyone being worse. Although the Bills got a scare when the bidders for the team included rock star Jon Bon Jovi and serial bankruptor and reality star Donald Trump. Thankfully, Terrence Pegula won the auction, and has roots in the area. It’s hard to imagine the owner of the Buffalo Sabres (of the NHL), the Buffalo Bandits (of the National Lacrosse League) and the Rochester Americans (the Sabres’ farm team) deserting the area.

The people of Buffalo are good people, who have suffered greatly– four straight Super Bowl losses, including one on a botched kick) and have the indignity of having a superstar even more loathsome as a person than Jim Brown (O.J. Simpson).  I feel for them and hope they do well.

The team: It would take the cast of CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds to identify the difference between the Bills and the Browns. The Bills have:

A bruising ground game that shares carries between backs. The three-headed monster is comprised of 49ers refugee Anthony Dixon (80 carries, 4.2 per carry), former #1 pick C.J. Spiller (69 carries, 4.2 per carry), and 33-year-old former star Fred Jackson (68 carries; 4.1 a crack).

As you might guess, the problem with this unit is that it takes the Bills a long time to figure out who matches up best with the opponent of the day. That, plus the decision to give carries to six other players (none of whom has averaged more than 3.3 per carry), means the Bills are averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, 24th in the NFL.

A journeyman veteran and a shake-and-bake #1 pick at quarterback. The Bills drafted E.J. Manuel in the first round a year ago, and let him start 10 games. He went 4-6, posted a 77.7 Q Rating and threw 11 TDs and 9 INTs.

After he started the season 2-2, with stats not much better (80.3, 5-3 TD-INT), the Bills went to Kyle Orton Orton is 32, and it’s common for people who know nothing about football to talk about Orton as if he is the worst player ever. In point of fact, he is what Brian Hoyer would be if he had gotten a chance to play:

  • Orton Is 43-41 as a starter (Hoyer is 10-5).
  • Has an 81.5 career rating (Hoyer’s is 80.6)
  • Has thrown 95 TDs and 62 INTs (Hoyer is 18-14)

Not a great player, but if you’ve been forced to watch players like Geno Smith or Chad Henne, you appreciate the modest values of a player who makes the correct (albeit unspectacular) play most of the time and the good play on occasion.

The primary difference between the Bills and the Browns is where they have chosen to put their draft picks. The Browns have put two #1 picks (LT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack) and two #2 picks (LG Joel Bitonio, RT Mitchell Schwartz), and ignored their receiving corps. Other than WR Puff Gordon and WR-TE Poke Cameron, the Browns have chummed their way along.

Buffalo has spent a #2 on LT Cordy Glenn and a #2 on C Eric Wood. Other than that, they’ve neglected the blockers. But they spent a #2 on WR Robert Woods last year (45-79 for 475 yards and 3 scores this year) and two #1s and a #4 (given to the Browns) for Sammy Watkins (48-89 for 684 yards and 5 TDs).

The amount of sugar in the receiving corps is probably the reason Manuel was benched. Watkins was:

  • 17-32 (53.1% completion percentage) for 197 yards (6.2 per attempt) and 2 TDs with Manuel throwing to him.
  • 31-57 (54.4) for 487 yards (8.54 per attempt) and 3 TDs with Orton.

Woods (11-29 for 129 yards and 0 TDs under Manuel) has grown even more under Orton (34-50 for 346 yards; 3 scores). It helps to have catchable balls.

Defensively, the Bills are what the Browns hope to be. DE Mario Williams has 12 sacks, DT Marcell Darius was 10.5 and DE Jerry Hughes has 9.5. It helps to have Jim Schwartz (the former Lions coach and Titans DE coach) running the show– he likes to overpower opponents more than Mike Pettine did last year.

The secondary, which is missing it’s top four inteceptors (FS Jarius Byrd, SS Jim Leonhard and MLB Kiko Alonso) is struggling. That Schwartz loves to add extra linemen– and leave his corners naked– on passing downs doesn’t help.

The Bills play outstanding pass defense– less so on the run. They’re 5th in points scored, overall.

The outcome: After the Houston game, I wrote the following words:

In order to beat Cleveland, a team simply needs to have the following:

  • A front seven with 2-3 Pro Bowl players, so it can stack the line to stop the run, overwhelm the right side on passing plays, and pressure journeyman QB Brian Hoyer into unforced errors.
  • A secondary strong enough to jam the undersized receivers and keep them from getting a clean break in the deep zone. (Skill in coverage optional.)
  • Tall receivers who can outfight Cleveland’s miniature Dawgs (none of the starters are taller than 5’11”) for passes.
  • A strong-armed quarterback who can throw deep balls, even if he isn’t all that accurate or mobile.
  • Offensive linemen beefy enough to not get beaten immediately– just long enough to let the play develop.

If we grade Buffalo on that scale, we get:

  • Defensive Line: Arguably better than Houston and certainly better than Jacksonville. Buffalo should have no trouble swarming Hoyer.
  • Secondary: They’re big enough to take care of everyone except Puff Gordon. The question is whether Schwartz will neglect him enough to let him have a huge game– and whether Hoyer can get the ball to him in inclement weather.
  • Receivers: Woods and Watkins are both 6’1″ and over 220– they can outmuscle the secondary… if Orton (whose arm isn;t that strong) can get teh ball to them)
  • Quarterback: Orton doesn’t have a strong enough arm to fight high winds or inclement weather. He had trouble in both Chicago and Denver as the season went on and conditions got worse.
  • Offensive Line: It’s mediocre at best– could probably not stop the Browns if they were at full strength. But the Browns aren’t anywhere close to full strength.

If this game were being played in September, or indoors, the Bills would be an easy pick. Orton’s arm strength wouldn’t be an issue.

In this weather? I don’t know. I also don’t know if Schwartz can overcome his infantile fixation on the pass rush enough to defend the two receivers (Giordon and Andrew Hawkins). If he can get to Hoyer fast enough, it might not matter. But his history as a coordinator is that his teams usually fall just short.

On the other hand, Hoyer isn’t a cold-weather QB. He doesn’t have a strong arm. And he is coming off two poor games, where the opponent helped him out rather a lot.

Bottom line: Could go either way, but I’m going with the home team. Buffalo has played a stronger schedule– the Browns have played one of the weakest. Unless Gordon has magic up his sleeve, Buffalo should overwhelm Cleveland.

Buffalo 24-14.

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