Typically, "must win" games are reserved for when teams are on the brink of elimination from playoff contention or within the grasp of winning their division. It's usually a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in December, not September. Browns Head Coach Pat Shurmur doesn't care about convention when it comes to sending a message to his football team. "It's important to win," Shurmur told the assembled media earlier in the week. "I don't know the statistics of it all, but we have to win."
Forget the statistics. Here's a fact: If the Browns lose to the Buffalo Bills (1-1) on Sunday and begin the season 0-3, many fans and local media will begin shifting focus to the college football scene to track the prospects that may be available at the top of the 2013 NFL Draft. Draft talk is an annual rite of passage in Cleveland from December through April. If Pat Shurmur can't get across to his team that they absolutely must do everything in their power to beat the Bills at home in Week 3, then it's safe to say everyone and their mother along the North Coast will be the next Mel Kiper Jr. by spring.
Of course, winning games in the NFL is much easier said than done. The Browns have been close enough to taste victory in both games so far in the young 2012 season. Of the six remaining teams in the NFL that have yet to win a game (Saints, Jaguars, Browns, Chiefs, Raiders and Titans), the Browns have the best point differential (8 points). But at the end of the day, all that matters is wins and losses. Pat Shurmur knows this. It's probably safe to say his team knows this. But knowing what they have to do to win won't be enough on Sunday. Executing the game plan will be the difference between 1-2 and 0-3. Between hope and despair. Between "Go Browns!" and "Go Cavs!"
The Buffalo Bills, led by Head Coach Chan Gailey, come to town after dropping the season opener on the road to their AFC East rival New York Jets, 48-28. Then, they rebounded at home in a big way last week to dismantle the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-17. While they haven't quite found consistency, they have found a potent rushing attack, led by their third-year running back out of Clemson, C.J. Spiller. Spiller took over the rushing duties full time after veteran starter Fred Jackson went down early in the Jets game. Since then, Spiller has gone on to become the league's leading rusher, running for 292 yards and 3 Touchdowns on 29 carries. His 10.1 yard-per-carry average through two games is nothing short of spectacular and he's coming whether the Browns are ready or not.
The Browns are not known around the league for their stout run defense, especially after finishing the 2011 season ranked 30th out of 32 teams. So far this season, especially after losing behemoth defensive tackle Phil Taylor to injury in May, the Browns have been up and down in their run defense efforts. Despite the Eagles' questionable decision to have Mike Vick throw the ball 56 times in Week 1, running back LeSean McCoy still gained 110 yards on 20 attempts for 5.5 yards per carry. The Browns fared much better in Week 2, holding Bengals' running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to only 75 yards on 21 carries (3.6 ypc). However, Green-Ellis is more of a between-the-tackles runner, while McCoy and Spiller are guys who can use their speed to get to the edge and find space on the outside.
At this point in the season, the Browns are one of the only teams in the league to have not allowed a rushing touchdown. This claim will surely be tested on Sunday. "He's an explosive guy," Shurmur said on Thursday. "I've got to believe he's one of the fastest guys on their team and if not in the league. When he gets some space, and they do a good job on offense of giving their runner space, he has a chance to turn good ones into great ones and great ones into touchdowns. Some of it has to do with what they do on offense. They do a very good job coaching their guys and some of it has to do with his skill and ability." It will be incredibly difficult for the Browns to stop him altogether, but they must try to limit him from breaking the long runs. Therefore, the Browns defense will have to fill the holes along the line, be quick in their pursuit of Spiller out of the backfield, and hope to stretch him out to the sidelines before he can turn the corner and get to the second level. They will also need to play fundamentally sound on the back end and not over-pursue so that Spiller is unable to find cut back lanes and tear off long runs the other way. "He's going to get yards", Shurmur admitted, "but you need to eliminate the big plays."
As if stopping the run wasn't enough of a task, the Browns secondary, who got picked on all day by Andy Dalton and company in Cincinnati, will be tested once again. Led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Stevie Johnson, the Bills offense can be very explosive in the passing game. Fitzpatrick has been inconsistent so far this season, throwing for five touchdowns and three interceptions and a 54.9 percent completion rate. However, the stats can be misleading due to the fact that the Bills got off to such an early lead against Kansas City that Gailey just rode Spiller and the run game to an easy victory. The Bills lost wide receiver David Nelson for the season to an ACL tear suffered against the Jets, so they will be relying on Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler, along with Spiller, in the passing game.
The Browns have to hope that changes made to the secondary bring improvements after giving up 318 passing yards and 3 touchdowns in Cincinnati. On Thursday morning, it was announced that 11-year veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown had been relegated to a back-up role for the first time in his career. The new starting cornerbacks for the Browns while Joe Haden continues to serve his four-game suspension will be Dimitri Patterson and second-year corner Buster Skrine. According to Shurmur, Brown will come in and move Patterson inside to the nickel back position on passing downs to cover the opposing slot receiver.
Skrine, most notably, struggled to keep his footing and cover the bigger wide receivers on the Cincinnati Bengals roster, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the size and speed of Stevie Johnson. He has the speed to cover but showed a tendency to get pushed around by the more physical receivers throughout the preseason and so far this regular season. The Browns have to hope he can bounce back from a shoddy performance and handle the pressure that will surely be coming his way after the Bills offense got a look at the tape of him in Cincinnati. There is little doubt that Fitzpatrick, like Dalton, will test Skrine early and often.
If the Browns defense can overcome their propensity to give up big plays and hold the Bills inside the 20s, they have a very good chance of putting one in the win column for the first time this season. Obviously, this will depend in large part on the offense's continued improvement. Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, buoyed by the play of the offensive line, have to come out and put up touchdowns like they did against the Bengals. Playing in front of the home crowd, with Browns legend Jim Brown in attendance and the NFL's current leading rusher watching on the other sideline, there is no doubt Trent Richardson will be highly motivated to capitalize on a breakout performance in Week 2.
It's a tough spot to be in for a young team trying to grow; the unenviable position of a "must win" so early in the season. But with games coming up against the Baltimore Ravens and defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in consecutive weeks, this may be the last realistic chance they'll have for a while. The Browns have been on the doorstep of victory both times they have taken the field this season. Despite a need to see improvement all around for this up and coming team, at this point in the process, a win just might be more important.