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At the beginning of October, the only thing the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills seemed to have in common was the likelihood of both picking in the top 10 of the 2008 NFL draft. The Bills couldn’t score and the Browns couldn’t stop anyone.
Now, in mid-December, they’re fighting for a berth in the postseason.
Buffalo (7-6) travels to Cleveland (8-5) on Sunday, with the winner of this contest improving its chances of earning the final spot in the AFC playoffs.
After the first week of October, the Bills were 1-4 and had scored 13.0 points per game while the Browns were 2-3 and allowing 30.4 a contest.
Statistically speaking, neither team has significantly improved in the past two months. Buffalo is averaging 17.1 points, the third-fewest in the AFC, while Cleveland allows 27.4, the most in the NFL. But each has won six of its past eight games to put itself in the playoff hunt.
The Browns could still win the AFC North, as they trail the 9-4 Steelers by one game. But Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping its division rival, making a wild-card spot the more realistic possibility.
While a Browns loss would be damaging, it wouldn’t be devastating. But if the Bills lose, they’ll be eliminated from playoff contention.
“We don’t mind the excitement,” Buffalo coach Dick Jauron said.
Cleveland can clinch one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots with a victory over the Bills, a Tennessee loss and a Denver loss or tie. But Browns coach Romeo Crennel isn’t thinking that far ahead.
“I don’t know anything about playoffs,” he said. “We play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. … You have two teams who have similar records who are neck and neck and both teams are going to be fighting for their lives, so it should be one of those knock-down, drag-out type of games.”
While their defense has been shaky all season, the Browns’ offense has emerged as one of the league’s best. Cleveland has scored at least 27 points in eight games, and its 27.7-point average ranks fifth in the NFL.
“We have confidence in each other and we’re building week to week,” said linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who had his team-leading fifth sack and forced a fumble. “We feel like we’re getting better and stronger as the season progresses.”
Since taking over for Charlie Frye in the second quarter of Cleveland’s season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, quarterback Derek Anderson has shined. He’s thrown for 3,247 yards, and his 26 touchdown passes are tied for fourth-most in the league.
Anderson’s success has been largely due to the play of wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who has broken out in his third year in the league. He’s caught 65 passes for 1,106 yards and 13 TDs - the third-most in the NFL.
The Browns haven’t beaten the Bills in the regular season since 1987 - they’ve met just three times since - though they did win a playoff game against Buffalo following the 1989 season.
The Bills’ 2007 season may actually have turned around during the loss that dropped them to 1-4. They led nearly the entire game against Dallas before losing on a last-second field goal on Oct. 8, but found out they could compete against one of the NFL’s elite teams.
J.P. Losman started the first three games at quarterback before being benched in favor of rookie Trent Edwards. Edwards has since won five of his six starts - he missed four games in November due to a sprained wrist on his throwing hand - and he enjoyed his most productive game as a pro in Sunday’s 38-17 win against Miami.
“We’re starting to believe in what the coaches are saying and what the team leaders are saying,” Edwards said. “We feel pretty confident right now.”
His passer rating of 80.1 isn’t going to get him a Pro Bowl invite and he’s thrown as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns, but Jauron likes what he sees in his young quarterback.
“He’s tough. He handles the information. He gets us in and out of the huddle,” Jauron said. “He’s just doing a terrific job, and he doesn’t have a lot of experience.”
Turnovers - or a lack thereof - have been key to the Bills’ success. They’ve committed just 17 - only three teams in the league have fewer.
After missing three games with a sprained ankle, rookie running back Marshawn Lynch returned against the Dolphins and had his second 100-yard rushing game. Fred Jackson, who had started the previous week with Lynch out, also ran for 100 - the first time since 1996 Buffalo had two backs top 100 in the same game.
Specials teams could be a factor in deciding Sunday’s outcome. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs leads the NFL with a 31.0-yard average on kickoff returns, while the Bills’ Roscoe Parrish tops the league with 17.5 yards per punt return.
The Browns are 5-1 at home, with their only blemish coming against the Steelers in Week 1.
Neither of these franchises has won a postseason game since 1995.