The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns faced off in another display of the terrible Thursday Night Football the NFL continues to put out there, but not for the usual reasons. This game was not so much ugly in the execution of the play, but it was ugly because of injuries. It turned into a game of unlikely heroes along with an emotional roller coaster ride for both teams.
After a terrible decision by Greg Little to bring out the opening kickoff where he did not even reach the 10 yard line. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and Josh Gordon missed a huge opportunity for a big connection down the seam where Gordon dropped the ball. After a punt and a good return for Jim Leonhard, the Bills were put on a short field. It went from a decent distance to a one yard drive after the Bills ran an option pass and Joe Haden was called for pass interference in the end zone. Fred Jackson cashed it in from the 1 yard line.
In the second offensive drive of the Browns, Hoyer was able to scramble away from multiple attempts of pressure from the Bills, ultimately scrambled and was able to pick up 11 yards before he attempted to slide; too late unfortunately. Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso had already started going and as Hoyer slid, Alonso hit him from the back so Hoyer slid awkwardly on both of his knees and took a hit in the head that caused his helmet to come off as he went to the ground. Hoyer was ultimately removed for what was called a right knee injury. He is scheduled to have an MRI and the Browns are worried he has torn ligaments in his knee.
In came Brandon Weeden, the former 1st round pick and down went the Browns offense, at least for the rest of the first half. He simply struggled, was indecisive and the Bills just teed off on him while he sat in the backfield. While the Browns were unable to do much on offense, the Bills extended their lead to 10-0.
Then the Browns responded. After getting a stop to force a punt, Travis Benjamin took center stage. The Bills punted to him and Benjamin was able to get the first of two huge returns. The first was a 57 yard return that set up the Browns on the Bills half of the field. The Browns were unable to get the ball in the end zone but did come away with a field goal to reduce the deficit to 10-3. After a 14 play, 74 yard drive that resulted in a Willis McGahee touchdown, the Browns stifled the Bills yet again. This time when they kicked to Benjamin, he returned it all the way, running it back 79 yards for a touchdown, which allowed the Browns to go to the half up 17-10. Benjamin was able to set a franchise record for punt return yardage in a single game with 7 returns for 179 yards and a touchdown passing one of the best ever in Eric Metcalf.
The Bills responded immediately and scored on the first drive out of the half on three plays. After a two yard run and a 24 yard pass from E.J. Manuel to Robert Woods, the Bills executed a fantastic counter that allowed C.J. Spiller to go 54 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 17-17. The Bills had a ton of success running the ball, which is something the Browns had been extremely stout against this year. Jackson was the main workhorse and while his average of 3.3 is not great, it is higher than the Browns surrender on average. His work enabled Spiller and Tashard Choice to make plays. Combined with a scramble by Manuel, the Bills ran for 155 yards on 31 attempts at 5 yards per carry on the Browns.
After a three and out from the Browns, the Bills started to drive down the field. Seven plays into the drive which had Buster Skrine get a sack as part of what was a great night for him, Manuel escaped pressure and ran out to the left. As he was angling out of bounds, Tashaun Gipson put a clean hit with his shoulder on Manuel’s right knee, which left Manuel grabbing it on the sideline. Gipson went from a good, clean play to taunting Manuel on the ground in a classless move.
With Jeff Tuel in the game, the Bills responded emotionally and were able to continue the drive and score a touchdown. Manuel tried to make it work on the sideline, but ultimately landed in the training room and out for the game. From that point on, the game took a huge uptick in the intensity. Both teams were forced to use their second quarterback and both teams feeling anger at the opposing team for their lost teammates.
The very next drive, the Browns and Weeden came out firing. On three consecutive plays, Weeden fired deep, first hitting Greg Little for 47 yards, then missing as they tried to connect again near the front pylon of the right side of the end zone. Weeden put a great pass on Gordon in the end zone which he bobbled but ultimately caught with his feet in bounds for the 37 yard touchdown that made the game 24-24. Little might have benefited from Weeden going into the game more than anyone. He had 3 catches for 71 yards on 5 targets, which is easily the best he has played all season at the wide receiver position this year. Little did struggle returning kicks, but he found a way to make a positive impact on the game overall.
After exchanging a couple punts, the Browns were able to maneuver the field position battle in their favor and get another field goal that made the game 27-24. At that point, both offenses seemed to stall out as defenses clamped down on teams with backup quarterbacks trying to create offense. This was especially frustrating for the Bills as they tried to use a flea flicker to create some offense, but simply could not move the ball with Tuel in the fourth quarter. The Browns were not doing much better but the exchanging of punts was fine with the Browns as long as they maintained the lead. They were able to get another field goal to make it 30-24, which put the Bills to try to put together a game winning drive with 2:14 left in the fourth quarter.
Tuel did what he could out of a bad situation. They first went with a sideline throw which had his receiver standing out of bounds followed by a screen call. The next play unfortunately resulted in Tuel getting undercut by T.J. Ward on a throw which Tuel stared down his primary target. Ward was able to almost walk into the end zone and put the nail in the Bills’ coffin. Up until that point, Ward had some up and down play and was looking to right some wrongs earlier in the game.
Between the injuries of which there were plenty, the game was one of streaks in the scoring department. The Bills ultimately scored the first ten points, followed by the Browns scoring the next 17. The Bills responded with 14 more points and the Browns finished with the last 20. The Browns are happy to win this game and it is incredibly frustrating for the Bills to lose, but both teams have to turn around and figure out just how badly their wounded are for the rest of the season. This was an ugly game that came down to a duel of backup quarterbacks and a battle of wills in which the Browns were able to win 37-24, but both teams may have taken significant losses pending the results of tests on their respective quarterbacks’ knees.