NFL Preview - Buffalo (2-2) at Cleveland (2-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The nation will get to see some of the NFL's brightest young stars on Thursday night when Buffalo, led by rookies E.J. Manuel and Kiko Alonso, visit a Cleveland team highlighted by Jordan Cameron and Barkevious Mingo.
The Bills evened their record at 2-2 with a 23-20 win over Baltimore in Week 4 behind Manuel, who threw for 167 yards and a touchdown en route to becoming the first rookie QB to defeat the defending Super Bowl champions in September.
He connected with fellow rookie Robert Woods on a 42-yard touchdown throw and finished the game completing 10-of-22 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"It was a huge win for our team," said Manuel, who, along with rookie head coach Doug Marrone, became the first rookie quarterback and head coach tandem to defeat the defending Super Bowl champions in a decade. "We're 2-2 now and moving forward to a quick turnaround with Cleveland coming up on Thursday."
Fred Jackson carried the ball 16 times for 87 yards and a score for Buffalo, which bounced back from a Week 3 27-20 road loss to the New York Jets. C.J. Spiller rushed for 77 yards on 23 carries, while Woods caught four passes for 80 yards and the touchdown.
Buffalo's defense picked off Joe Flacco five times with Alonso getting two of them, including a diving game-saver with 57 seconds remaining. Flacco forced a pass over the middle intended to Dallas Clark and safety Da'Norris Searcy got a hand on the ball before Alonso proved to be Johnny on the spot in the tip drill.
"I'm proud of this team. We've had a lot of adversity in this program," Marrone said.
The Browns, meanwhile, have won two in a row behind new quarterback Brian Hoyer, including last week's 17-6 triumph over Cincinnati.
The former third-string QB, who is a native of suburban Cleveland, passed for 269 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals. Hoyer went a combined 11- of-11 for 130 yards on two touchdown drives for the Browns, who are 2-0 since starter Brandon Weeden sprained his thumb and running back Trent Richardson was traded to the Colts.
"He's been the spark that I had hoped for," said Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.
Cameron had 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals and his five touchdown receptions are tied for the most ever by an AFC tight end in September.
Chris Ogbonnaya also had a TD reception, while in-season pickup Willis McGahee rushed 15 times for 46 yards and Billy Cundiff kicked a 51-yard field goal in the win, though he also missed two other tries.
Josh Gordon, in his second week back from a suspension, had four catches for 71 yards for the Browns.
"We're playing really well," said Mingo, who has a sack in each of his first three NFL games. "We have to keep it up and grow and learn. We'll get back out there Thursday."
Cleveland leads their all-time series with the Bills by a 10-7 margin and holds a 5-4 advantage in the Buckeye State.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The road is always a tough place for a rookie quarterback and that will be Manuel's next test to pass as an NFL signal caller. It's an even tougher hurdle to clear with a short week of preparation.
Through Week 4 Manuel has completed 74-of-130 passes for 856 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions for a 80.2 passer rating, solid if unspectacular numbers for a freshman.
"We haven't gotten to Thursday yet, but I think my body feels good," Manuel said when talking about the short week. "Coach is allowing us to get rest and things like that. We're fresh not just mentally but physically."
Manuel has been helped by Buffalo's rushing offense, which has generated an AFC-best 152.0 yards per game (second-most in the NFL) behind both Spiller and Jackson, two starting caliber players.
Spiller, though, is dealing with ankle and knee problems while Jackson has a sprained knee ligament. Both expect to play Thursday.
"I'll be fine," Spiller said. "I'm not worried about being in game shape because we have got other guys out there, so I'm just staying in tuned with everything, being attentive, making sure I'm in the game plan and know what's going on come Thursday if I'm out there."
"Barring any major setback, I'll be able to play," Jackson added. "It's just about strengthening it, doing some rehab type things to get the ligament stronger."
At receiver, Woods, a Souther Cal product, is very refined for a rookie and is coming on quickly to give the Bills a solid complement to veteran Stevie Johnson, who is dealing with a hamstring issue.
That group faces a Browns defense that is coming on quickly under coordinator Ray Horton, who switched the group from a more passive 4-3 bunch into an aggressive, attacking 3-4 that ranks third in the NFL, allowing just 291.5 ypg.
Mingo and free agent acquisition Paul Kruger attack from the edges while Phil Taylor is one of the better nose tackles in football as evidenced by the Browns giving up just 2.9 yards per rush, best in the league.
D'Qwell Jackson remains a consistent rock at inside linebacker and corner Joe Haden is one of only a handful of true lockdown cornerbacks in all of football. Manuel will need to attack the opposite corner, Buster Skrine.
"They do a great job flying to the ball," Manuel said of the Cleveland defense. "They do a great job covering deep, their safeties are going to try playing the box to try and stop the run. I think we have some things we can do against them to counter that and we're just continuing to practice and be ready for those guys."
Hoyer will be facing a Bills defense that has recorded an NFL-best nine interceptions and 13 sacks through the first four games of the season.
Alonso has been a revelation at middle linebacker with a team-high 32 tackles and four interceptions. The Oregon product picked Flacco twice last week to extend his streak of consecutive games with an interception to three - the first three-game interception streak by an NFL rookie linebacker since 1980 (Al Richardson -- four games) and the first by a Bills rookie linebacker in team history.
Hoyer has Cleveland's passing attack up to 14th in the NFL at 247.8 yards per game but the rushing game has sputtered at No. 27 at 76.0 ypg. The Browns aren't all that explosive although Gordon can get deep on just about anyone while McGahee should help sure up that running game as he continues to get more touches and becomes more comfortable.
Buffalo, meanwhile, could continue to be without two injured starters in the secondary -- Jairus Byrd and Leodis McKelvin.
"He's played well for the past two weeks," Chudzinski said of Hoyer. "Obviously, we've been able to win in those games and in a short week we'll get ready and be ready to play Thursday."
A quarterback hasn't won their first three starts in Cleveland since the legendary Otto Graham in 1946 and the Browns haven't has a winning record through five games since 2001.
Hoyer is about to change both of those facts, albeit barely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 17, Bills 16
10/02 16:35:16 ET