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NFL Preview - Cleveland (5-7) at Buffalo (2-10)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Favorite. It's a role the Cleveland Browns aren't exactly accustomed to.
In fact, in a season during which they've managed just five wins in 12 games, it's usually been as an underdog that the Eric Mangini-led team has made its biggest impact.
A Week 4 win came against a 2-1 Cincinnati team coming off a playoff season. A Week 7 victory came at defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans. A Week 9 triumph came against current AFC front-runner New England. And a Week 13 road win over Miami all but eliminated the preseason dark-horse Dolphins from a shot at the 2010 postseason.
But while visiting 2-10 Buffalo this Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Browns will unquestionably be expecting good things.
"There are two emotions in this league." Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme said after last week's 13-10 win over the Dolphins. "Pure joy from winning and the misery of losing. It's good to be on this side."
Delhomme, in his first year with the Browns after seven straight in Carolina, is expected to make his third consecutive start this week while rookie Colt McCoy continues to recover from a high ankle sprain suffered in a Nov. 21 loss at Jacksonville.
McCoy had taken over the starting job in October after both Delhomme and original No. 2 option Seneca Wallace were slowed with ankle sprains. Delhomme started Cleveland's Week 12 home victory against Carolina and last week's defeat of the Dolphins, completing 48-of-69 passes for 462 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions of those two games.
"I don't think I'm the dumbest guy in the world," Delhomme said. "I know what the future is with the Browns. I think a lot of us have seen [McCoy's emergence]. I came here as a 35-year-old knowing I probably won't be here for 10 years. I've enjoyed every minute I've been here."
As for the Bills, they're just trying to stay healthy as well.
Buffalo will face the Browns with a new center and a new right guard after Geoff Hangartner and Kraig Urbik sustained knee injuries during last weekend's 38-14 loss at Minnesota.
Eric Wood, who returns after missing two games because of an ankle injury of his own, will shift from right guard to center, and backups Ed Wang and Cordaro Howard will combine to fill the guard vacancy.
"The moving parts up there always makes it tough," Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "We have to take advantage of these practices and meeting- room time. It's all about communication and getting everybody on the same page, and from there hoping we get the job done."
Elsewhere on the injury report, cornerback Terrence McGee returned to practice Wednesday after missing two games with a nerve problem behind his knee that has cost him eight games on the season.
"We've gotten over a couple of humps," Bills head coach Chan Gailey said. "Whether we are where we want to be right now, I can promise you we're not because our record says we're not. [But] do I think we're getting better? I think we're getting better."
Cleveland holds a 10-5 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with the Bills and has won the last three meetings between the teams, the most recent being an uneventful 6-3 decision in Buffalo during Week 5 of last year. The Browns also recorded a 29-27 victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008, with the Bills' last defeat of Cleveland a 37-7 home rout back in 2004.
In addition to their regular-season history, the franchises met in a 1989 AFC Divisional Playoff, won by Cleveland at home by a 34-30 count.
Mangini owns a 4-3 lifetime record against the Bills, including a 3-3 mark during his three-year run directing the New York Jets from 2006-08. Gailey has never previously faced either Cleveland or Mangini as a head coach.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland has run the ball with some authority in recent weeks, raising its average yardage to 111.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks 14th out of the league's 32 teams. The rest of its figures are in the bottom tier, however, including points per game (19.1, 26th), total yardage (305.4 ypg, 27th) and passing yardage (194.0 ypg, 27th). The Bills have been equally forgettable across the board, with a league-worst run defense that's yielded 170.9 yards per week and a 29th-best scoring defense that allows 27.8 points a game. Their total yardage allowed of 378.1 per game is 26th of 32 teams, though run-happy opponents have managed just 207.2 passing yards per game, putting Buffalo at a dubious No. 10 overall.
Quarterback Delhomme had season bests in completion percentage (70.6) and passer rating (97.3) in last week's win at Miami. He'll lean hard on running back Peyton Hillis, who's 38 yards shy of joining Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Browns to run for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in a season. Tight end Benjamin Watson caught a career-high 10 passes against Miami and joined Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow as the only players at his position in franchise history to have at least 10 receptions in a game. Watson tied a career-high with two touchdowns against the Bills while with New England in September of last season. On special teams, kicker Phil Dawson's game-winning boot at Miami was the 14th of his career.
The Bills intercepted Minnesota's Brett Favre and Tarvaris Jackson a combined four times last week, including two by cornerback Drayton Florence, who returned one pick 40 yards for a touchdown. Safety Donte Whitner also had his first interception of the season, and fifth of his career, against the Vikings. Elsewhere, linebacker Paul Posluszny leads the team with 111 tackles.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo has excelled in few spots offensively through 12 games, registering no better than No. 17 in the league in any category. The run game has that high- end spot with an average 107.9 yards per week, while the pass offense and its 203.9 yards per game is 23rd. Total yardage of 311.8 per game is 26th overall and the point-scoring clip of 20.2 per week is 22nd. Cleveland has done its best work in limiting overall damage, as a 12th-best scoring defense of 19.9 points per game attests. Foes have gained 119.1 yards per game on the ground (20th overall), 231.3 yards per week through the air (20th) and an average of 350.4 total yards (22nd).
Fitzpatrick has played better at home than on the road, passing for eight touchdowns against three interceptions for an 81.1 passer rating in Orchard Park. He is the fifth Bills passer to reach 20 scoring passes in a season and the first since Drew Bledsoe in 2004. A touchdown pass against the Browns would give him 14 straight games with at least one. In the backfield, Fred Jackson averages 5.3 yards per carry at home in December for his career. Among the receivers, Lee Evans is 66 yards shy of joining Andre Reed and Eric Moulds as the only Buffalo players to reach 6,000 for a career. In his past four games, he is averaging 25.6 yards per catch. Also, Steve Johnson is two touchdown catches shy of tying Bill Brooks (11, 1995) for the most in a season in franchise history. Lastly, undrafted free agent David Nelson caught his first career touchdown pass last week.
Cleveland cornerback and 2010 first-round draft choice Joe Haden (No. 7 overall) has at least one interception in four straight games, making him the first Brown to do so since Ernie Kellerman in 1968. Fellow corner Eric Wright had an interception in his last game at Buffalo, and safety Abram Elam has a pick in two of his last three contests.
Hillis is the one fail-safe option for Cleveland against a run-averse Buffalo defense, while Watson is a middling play along with kicker Dawson among Browns players. For the Bills, runner Jackson and receiver Johnson could be worthwhile, and Evans is a contributor in terms of big plays. Elsewhere, neither defense is a reliable choice.
A Lake Erie-area game in December likely means difficult weather elements and a paucity of big-play chances. In such a spot, a running game is vital. And armed with Hillis in the midst of a career year, the Browns seem best equipped to produce in such a scenario. Look for him to reach triple-digits even if the score -- and the temperature -- struggles to make the teens.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Browns 17, Bills 10
12/09 14:41:51 ET
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