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Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel readies to throw the ball during their NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Orchard Park, New York September 29, 2013. The Bills face the Cleveland Browns in Thursday night NFL action. (DONALD HEUPEL/REUTERS)
Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel readies to throw the ball during their NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Orchard Park, New York September 29, 2013. The Bills face the Cleveland Browns in Thursday night NFL action. (DONALD HEUPEL/REUTERS)

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Bills, Browns set to show off on national stage Add to ...

When the NFL announced its TV schedule, the Buffalo Bills-Cleveland Browns matchup on a Thursday night in October didn’t figure to shatter any ratings records.

It still won’t, but it’s much more watchable than it figured to be.

The Bills and Browns are two of the NFL’s early surprises at 2-2 under first-year head coaches. Buffalo and Cleveland have been sparked by opportunistic defences, and one team will emerge from a short week and with momentum before the leaves drop and the weather along Lake Erie turns harsh and unforgiving.

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The chance to play in the national spotlight has Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor revved up.

“Oh, yeah, the whole world is watching,” he said. “Every little thing you do, you know everyone is going to see it.”

Two weeks ago, the Browns seemed ready to slide into a hole and disappear. After dropping to 0-2, they traded star running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts, a stunning move that had some Cleveland fans ready to storm the team’s training facility with pitchforks and torches. But just when things seemed bleakest, quarterback Brian Hoyer, a life-long Browns fan, rode to the rescue.

Displaying poise and leadership he learned as Tom Brady’s understudy in New England, Hoyer has been a revelation for the Browns, and now must deliver again. He kept the starting job this week despite Brandon Weeden being cleared to play after spraining his right thumb.

“As a competitor, you want to be the guy out there on the field, so I’m obviously excited about that,” Hoyer said.

For the Bills to keep making progress, they’ll need more consistency from rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel. He passed for just 167 yards last week, against the Baltimore Ravens, but Buffalo’s defence intercepted Joe Flacco five times to win.

While all 32 NFL teams play on a Thursday – not so for Sunday or Monday nights – this is a chance for the Bills and Browns to prove worthy of future exposure.

“If you’re on Sunday or Monday nights it means you are bringing in the Ws,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to keep winning.”

Five more reasons for tuning in to see the Browns host the Bills.

RUNNING ON EMPTY

Buffalo’s robust rushing attack may not be so healthy this week. Running backs C.J. Spiller (left ankle) and Fred Jackson (sprained left knee) both got hurt last Sunday. The Bills are averaging 152 yards a game – second in the league – and they’ll be facing a stingy defence limiting teams to just 79 yards and 2.9 per carry, a league low.

“They’re very strong,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “They do a very good job of holding the edges.”

M-I-N-G-O, MINGO IS HIS NAME-O

Browns rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo is a rising star. In just three games, the No. 6 overall draft pick has three sacks, knocked down a couple passes and would have blocked a punt if he wasn’t held. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder seems to be playing in a different gear as he has blown past offensive linemen with ease.

Mingo is the first player with a sack in his first three games since 2004.

ROOKIE THIEF

The Bills have a special rookie linebacker, too. Kiko Alonso is a football magnet. Alonso had two interceptions last week, including the clincher with 57 seconds remaining to secure Buffalo’s stunner over Baltimore. Through four games, Alonso has four picks and leads the team with 32 tackles, 19 solo. Alonso is the first rookie linebacker to have an interception in three successive games since 1980, and just the fourth linebacker to have four interceptions in September.

HAPPY RETURNS

Browns cornerback Joe Haden hasn’t returned an interception for a touchdown in his career – pro or college – and he wouldn’t mind getting his first on national TV. Haden, whose coverage on Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green keyed Cleveland’s win, said he’s been planning a TD celebration dance for years.

“Before the games,” he said, “I’m always thinking, ‘If I run this way, I’m jumping in this way. Or if I run this way, I’m jumping over here.’ It’s seven years in the making. The dance has changed with the new music coming out, so I’ve been waiting on it.”

BROWN’S TOWN

At halftime, Cleveland will honour legendary running back Jim Brown. Brown reunited with the only team he played for earlier this year by accepting a role as an adviser. There had been a bitter separation that caused him to skip a Ring of Honor ceremony in 2010, but No.32 is back and will be saluted for his on-field accomplishments and contributions to the Cleveland community.

 

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