BEREA - When the schedule came out in the spring, it looked like a December dog only the Ian Eagle-Solomon Wilcots broadcasting team could love.
Seven months later, Browns-Bills is the biggest matchup either team`s seen in years and Cleveland`s most important game since 2002. The interest stretches far beyond the Lake Erie Snow Belt as the meeting Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium will go a long way toward deciding the AFC playoff race.
"Playoffs? Playoffs? I don`t know anything about playoffs," coach Romeo Crennel said Monday.
Crennel had a hint of former Colts coach Jim Mora in his voice. But Mora`s famous "playoffs?" rant at a news conference implied that his team didn`t belong in the postseason discussion. Crennel was just continuing his season-long policy of only looking - and talking - about the upcoming game.
"We play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday and we have to improve in order to be ready for Buffalo," he said a day after the 24-18 win over the Jets. "That`s our focus. We`re not the (unbeaten) New England Patriots. We know that we can improve and we have been working every week trying to improve."
Despite Crennel`s possible protest, the 8-5 Browns have done enough for the playoff talk to kick into high hear.
They control their destiny and would secure a berth with wins over Buffalo (7-6), Cincinnati (5-8) and San Francisco (3-10) to end the year. If the season ended today, they would be a wild card and the sixth seed in the AFC and travel to Pittsburgh on Jan. 5 or 6.
And for the first time since 2002, the Browns were included in a list of playoff scenarios provided by the NFL. A Cleveland win Sunday combined with a Tennessee (7-6) loss and a Denver (6-7) loss or tie, and the Browns would clinch a playoff berth. The Titans play at Kansas City on Sunday and the Broncos play at Houston on Thursday night.
Even if the Browns don`t clinch with a win, it would effectively eliminate the Bills from the wild-card discussion. But a Cleveland loss would put them in a tie for the second wild-card spot with Buffalo and possibly Tennessee. It would also hurt the Browns in the various tiebreakers that include head-to-head, conference record and games against common opponents.
"That game is going to be a big game - a huge game as a matter of fact," said Crennel, who gave the players Monday off. "I`m glad it`s here at home in front of our fans. I know that the energy they bring, our guys will feel that and hopefully it will elevate our play."
The Browns and Bills combined for 11 wins last year, seven by the Bills. Buffalo, which hasn`t been to the playoffs since 1999, began this season with three losses and four in the first five games, but has come on strong behind rookie quarterback Trent Edwards.
The third-rounder from Stanford replaced former first-round pick J.P. Losman and is 5-1 as a starter. The Bills rolled over winless Miami 38-17 on Sunday.
"This is the game of the year for us, the biggest game since I`ve been here," Bills second-year strong safety Donte Whitner, a native of Cleveland, told the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.
The Browns are early 51/2-point favorites. Part of the reason is the location; the Browns have won five straight at home. The rest is the Bills` statistics.
They`ve been outscored 291-222, which is the ninth-worst point differential in the league and by far the worst by a team with a winning record. They have 61 fewer first downs than their opponents, are 26th in scoring offense (17.1 points per game) and 30th in defense (363.8 yards per game).
If the Browns win Sunday, they would move into a tie with Pittsburgh (9-4) in the AFC North race or Jacksonville (9-4) for the fifth seed, depending on who wins the Steelers-Jaguars meeting Sunday. The Browns would still trail in the tiebreaker with either team but would be in position to pass with another stumble by the Steelers or Jaguars.
While Crennel discourages playoff talk in the locker room, he understands the excitement building around town.
"The Browns fans, they love the Browns and they want the Browns to do well," he said. "When the Browns weren`t doing well, they were disappointed. Now during the week, they are able to feel good about their team. They can walk around with their chest out."
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.