After a 5-1 start, the Buffalo Bills have dropped their last three games, going from first to worst in the AFC East. They share a dubious distinction with the Philadelphia Eagles as the only teams with winning records that are currently winless in their division. They've been giving up long drives on defense just as their running game has been unable to sustain consistency. In Week 10's loss to the Patriots, the Bills displayed an anemic offense, amassing just 10 first downs and 168 total yards.
As for Cleveland, after an 0-3 start to their 2008 season, the Browns are just trying to hold on for dear life. The defense has been a major disappointment with the exception of tackle Shaun Rogers. Quarterback Derek Anderson lost his starting job to Brady Quinn in Week 10. The Browns come into Monday night's game having lost two straight in agonizing fashion -- giving up big fourth-quarter leads to the Ravens and Broncos. There's been talk that certain players are
"quitting" and a 3-6 record in the same division as the Ravens and Steelers is a huge problem.
This may appear to be a game between two slipping teams that had high expectations this year, but the Bills and Browns are among the NFL's elite in one category -- special teams. The Browns currently have the best special-teams unit in the NFL according to the Football Outsiders special-teams ratings, while the Bills are third.
In Cleveland, one player has made all the difference. In Buffalo, it's a coach --acknowledged as the league's best at his position -- who keeps it going year after year.
Fourth-year receiver Josh Cribbs has become the Browns' jack-of-all-trades. He'll catch a few passes in Cleveland's loaded receiver rotation and line up in shotgun to take snaps in the Browns' "Flash" option packages. But Cribbs' primary value to the Browns is as a return man, and he's become the best in the game -- yes, even better than Devin Hester. Why? Versatility. Not only does Cribbs rank No. 4 in the NFL with an average of 27.7 yards per kickoff return, he also leads his team, and is tied for third in the league, in special-teams tackles with 14. Cribbs set a team record for kick return yards in his rookie season of 2005 with 1,094, and he's shattered it every year since. An ankle injury caused a slow start this season, but he's back to peak form, which he proved with a 92-yard kick return against the Ravens in Week 9.
The productivity is no fluke, and neither is the return coverage ability. In 2007, he was the only player in the league to lead his team in punt return yardage, kick return yardage and special-teams tackles. He also led the Browns in special-teams tackles in 2006. It's an unusual feat, as if the best relief pitcher in baseball could also steal 30 bases as a pinch runner. Most special-teams tackle leaders are backup defenders and other unknown players, but Cribbs can do it all. He's also the main reason the Browns have exploded upward in kick return value over the past two years. Here are Cleveland's ratings, based on estimated value gained by extra field position compared to an average NFL team
When Bobby April took over Buffalo's special teams prior to the 2004 season, it marked the end of a seven-year stretch in which the Bills never ranked higher then 23rd in our special-teams ratings. Since April's arrival, the team has never ranked lower than sixth, and enjoyed a two-year run as the NFL's best in 2004 and 2005. April has done this with different primary kick returners (Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin) and punt returners (Nate Clements, Roscoe Parrish), but he's benefited from great consistency elsewhere -- he's had punter Brian Moorman and kicker Rian Lindell since 2004 and neither player has missed a game. In 2007, the Bills set team records for punt return yardage (440 -- Parrish) and consecutive field goals made (18 -- Lindell).
The Bills' 2008 season opener against the Seahawks was as good a display of April's acumen as you will ever see. The Bills won the game 34-10, and 20 points came directly from the special teams. Moorman threw a touchdown pass to defensive end Ryan Denney on a fake field goal, Parrish blew by Seattle's coverage team for a 63-yard punt return touchdown and Lindell kicked two field goals and recovered a fumble on a kickoff that set up another score.
Both the Bills and Browns have had problems scoring and winning consistently, but each team has an ace in the hole. Cleveland has the single best return player in the game, and Buffalo has the man who sets up nonpareil special teams without fail. Don't be surprised if Monday night's game turns on the efforts of one or the other.
Doug Farrar is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com