1. Injuries at running back, in the secondary a primary concern. Television ratings suggest fans love the Thursday night schedule of games in the NFL. Finding a player or coach, however, who feels the same way is nearly impossible. Four days between games is a tough turnaround for any NFL team, and that’s especially true for the Buffalo Bills tonight. The availability of running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and defensive backs Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams and Jairus Byrd is in serious question, as will be their effectiveness should they play at what’s likely to be less than 100 percent. The good news is the players have 10 days to heal before their next game. That’s like a second bye week, but it requires a win to really enjoy, because it’s a long time to sit on a loss.
2. Stevie needs to get back on track. Coming off his least productive game since he became a starter in 2010, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson will have a tough matchup in trying to bounce back. Browns cornerback Joe Haden has followed the opposition’s No. 1 receiver this season and did a good job on Cincinnati’s A.J. Green in Week Four, limiting him to seven catches for only 51 yards. Haden also held Miami’s Mike Wallace to one catch in the season opener, and limited the production of both Baltimore’s Torrey Smith and Minnesota’s Greg Jennings. Given the Bills’ injury situation at running back, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel will be forced to make some plays through the air. Getting back on the same page with Johnson, who had just one catch for minus-1 yard against the Ravens in Week Four, will be important tonight. Johnson leads the Bills with 35 targets.
3. Hoyer’s homecoming a feel good story. Cleveland native Brian Hoyer took over at quarterback after Brandon Weeden was hurt, and has led the Browns to two straight wins. Hoyer has gone 55 of 92 for 590 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions in those games. The Browns are tied with the St. Louis Rams for most pass attempts in the NFL at 183. Because their quarterbacks drop back to pass so much, the Browns do run the risk of taking more sacks. So far in 2013, Cleveland quarterbacks have been sacked 17 times, second most in the league, while the Bills’ defense has 13 sacks, tied for seventh most in the NFL.
4. Cleveland receivers present a big challenge. Hoyer has three big targets to throw to in 6-foot-5 tight end Jordan Cameron, 6-3 Josh Gordon and 6-2 Greg Little. Cameron is one of the NFL’s breakout stars, leading all tight ends with 30 catches and is second at the position with five touchdowns. The Bills have limited tight ends to just 161 yards in the first four games, but Cameron will be their most difficult challenge of the season so far.
5. Battle of strengths. The Bills’ rushing attack ranks second in the NFL with 152 yards per game, while the Browns’ run defense is fourth in the league, allowing just 79 yards per game. Nose tackle Phil Taylor (6-3, 335) and defensive ends Desmond Bryant (6-6, 310) and Ahtyba Rubin (6-2, 330) anchor the Browns’ 3-4 scheme. Bryant has proved to be one of the offseason’s best free-agent signings.
Outlook: Logic suggests the Browns tonight. Their defensive front seven is playing like one of the best in the league, they’re healthier and they have the benefit of being at home on a short week. All that being said, I’m calling for the upset.
Prediction: Bills 27, Browns 20