Buffalo Bills (2-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-2)
The Browns have somehow vaulted to the top of the AFC North two weeks after losing Brandon Weeden to injury and trading Trent Richardson to the Colts. While it’s not a surprise that they wouldn’t miss Brandon Weeden that much, I don’t think anyone was expecting Brian Hoyer to play well enough to mask the loss of Trent Richardson. After 33 first downs to 13 punts in the first 2 games of the season, the Browns have 41 first downs to 10 punts in the past 2 games, while turning the ball over 5 times (included failed 4th downs) to 7 times in the first 2 games. Hoyer’s performance against the Vikings could have been seen as a fluke, but after they knocked off the Bengals last week, it’s time to believe in Brian Hoyer a little bit. He’s not great, but he’s the best quarterback the Browns have had in 5 years.
This has allowed their defense to shine. They don’t have a perfect defense by any means and they have holes in their secondary, but they have one of the better front 7s in the NFL with guys like Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Jabaal Sheard, D’Qwell Jackson, and Paul Kruger. Meanwhile, Joe Haden has done an excellent job in the secondary, allowing 15 completions on 32 attempts for 130 yards while shadowing opponent’s #1 receivers, including guys like Mike Wallace and AJ Green. They have allowed opponents to convert 70% of 1st and 10s for a subsequent set of first downs.
The Bills, meanwhile, are also playing excellent defense, allowing opponents to convert 69% of 1st and 10s for a subsequent set of first downs. Mike Pettine has done an excellent job in his first year as defensive coordinator and their front 7 is playing very well, with guys like Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and early Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Kiko Alonso. Their secondary has problems, mostly thanks to injuries, but they have, at least, a comparable defense to Cleveland.
This should be a defensive matchup, especially on a short week. Both teams have inexperienced quarterbacks and stronger defenses than offenses. The under usually covers on Thursday Night (76-59 since 1989). I’m not going to put anything on that because I hate betting over/under, especially after last week, a defensive matchup that somehow went over the total because of return touchdowns and garbage time scores. However, this should be a low scoring game.
The home team also usually covers on Thursday Night Football, because, on a short week, you need all the time you can get to prepare and having to travel puts you at a disadvantage. The home team is especially advantaged when they are favored and in a non-divisional matchup. It makes sense that a better team would be more prepared for a short week, so home dogs don’t cover nearly as often as home favorites, but these two teams are very evenly matched so that’s not a factor.
The fact that these are non-divisional opponents is relevant because that means they are relatively unfamiliar with each other, especially in their first season with new coaching staffs. If they were divisional opponents, it would nullify Cleveland’s advantage at home, but that’s not the case. They still have an advantage and non-divisional home favorites are 29-12 ATS on Thursday Night. I’d be much more confident with Cleveland at -3 than at -4, but the Browns should still be the right side.
Cleveland Browns 16 Buffalo Bills 9
Pick against spread: Cleveland -4