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Thursday night preview: Five things to watch for

The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns are not the teams you think they are. The Browns are legitimate playoff contenders in a watered down AFC North. Their deep defensive front seven rivals any in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is an upgrade at quarterback.

The Bills have overachieved to get to 2-2 because of an improved coaching staff and underrated defensive talent. Every game has come down to the last possession. Their rookie class is contributing at many levels.

One of these teams will have a winning record after Thursday night. The Browns could have sole possession of first place. The conventional wisdom suggests they are nice early season stories without staying power. Conventional wisdom is worthless.

Through four weeks of this season, we don't know nearly as much as we think. We do know both of these squads are improved this season.

  1. The Bills have done an effective job coaching around rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. He's capable of making a handful of nice throws every game, but they aren't asking him to do too much. Pre-draft concerns about his accuracy have proven on point. He throws behind receivers often on slants and misses too many open receivers. It's going to be harder to rely on the running game, however, if running back C.J. Spiller is out Thursday.
  1. Spiller is questionable for Thursday night with an ankle injury. His status is up in the air. Fred Jackson is capable of carrying the load, but it's a crime that Spiller has been so ineffective this season. It has to come back to coaching.

Coach Doug Marrone oddly continues to run Spiller up the middle as if he's Jerome Bettis. During last week's win over Baltimore, Spiller ran practically nothing to the outside. He wasn't targeted once. Spiller is a space player, but he never gets the ball with room to roam. It's insane that Spiller's yards-per-reception (3.2) actually is lower than his 3.5 yards-per-carry average. Buffalo's coaching staff has done a very nice job overall on both sides of the ball, but Spiller's disappearance is curious.

  1. This wouldn't be a bad game for Spiller to miss in fantasy leagues because of the matchup. Defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor are all very powerful. It's not rare to see them throw a lineman on the ground on the way to making a tackle. Cleveland is one of the toughest teams in the league to run against.
  1. Browns GM Michael Lombardi focused on the pass rush this offseason, and it's paid off. Rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo has three sacks. Free agent Paul Kruger is giving the Browns what they expected. Jabaal Sheard might be the best of the bunch, but he's doubtful to play. Guys like defensive tackle John Hughes have played well off the bench. Few teams boast front seven depth like the Browns.
  1. Buffalo's entire rookie class is impressive. Linebacker Kiko Alonso is an early candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Wide receiver Robert Woods already looks like the best receiver on the team. (Sorry, Stevie Johnson.) Woods has a versatile game; he can go deep or make the tough catch over the middle. He's dynamic enough to get the occasional carry on an end-around.

*The "Around The League Podcast" previewed this game and handed out awards on the latest episode. *

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