One by one, ClevelandBrowns.com is breaking down each of the Browns' 2016 regular season opponents as the dog days of the offseason unfold.*
Today's preview pits the Browns against an AFC East two hours up the coast of Lake Erie.
Who: Buffalo Bills
When: Week 15 (Dec. 18, Ralph Wilson Stadium)
Series History (last meeting): 11-8 (Bills 26, Browns 10 in 2014 at Ralph Wilson Stadium)
The coach: Rex Ryan — second season
The stakes: The Browns will head up I-90 for a mid-December, likely cold, potentially snowy bout against the Bills. In their first meeting since 2014, Cleveland and Buffalo should be looking to finish strong in the home stretch of the regular season regardless of the implications.
Offseason storyline: After six seasons full of ups and downs with the Jets, Rex Ryan's first season in western New York unfolded as a pleasant surprise for Bills fans. Buffalo finished 8-8 and nearly made the playoffs as a Wild Card team after a strong showing in the AFC East (save for getting swept by the Patriots). As we head into 2016, the Bills are widely considered a fringe playoff contender provided QB Tyrod Taylor — whose first season as a starting quarterback earned him a Pro Bowl nod — continues to develop and the defense — which was something of a middle-of-the-pack type of unit — takes steps in the right direction.
Matchup to watch: The Browns run defense vs. Buffalo's run game — Behind Taylor and RB LeSean McCoy, the Bills finished first in the NFL with an average of 152 yards per game. Cleveland, meanwhile, struggled to stop opposing ground games last season. While we'll get a chance to see if the Browns shore up the unit earlier in the season, a trip to Buffalo should prove to be a challenge.
Biggest addition: DL Shaq Lawson — the former Clemson star was expected to compete for a starting job and immediately have an impact on a defense looking for ways to star replace defensive end Mario Williams. That brings us to our next question.
Biggest loss: Lawson and Williams — You can go one of two ways with this one. Let's start with the biggest loss in terms of who's no longer on the team, which would be Williams. Considered as one of the league's premier pass rushers, Williams parted ways with the Bills and signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. It's a considerable loss, but Williams — who averaged 12.6 sacks in his first three seasons with Buffalo — saw his production drop considerably last season, notching just five sacks and 15 tackles. As such, the Bills scooped up Lawson in the first round despite concerns about his shoulder. A few weeks later, Buffalo announced he would indeed need shoulder surgery, a procedure that could potentially sideline him for six months according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The star: Taylor — After four seasons as a backup in Baltimore, Taylor joined the Bills and won the starting quarterback job over former first-round draft pick EJ Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel. He didn't disappoint — Taylor passed for 3,034 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to six interceptions and rushed for 568 yards and four more scores. Thanks to his efforts, the Bills finished 12th in total offense in 2015.
The X-Factor: WR Sammy Watkins — Watkins was superb last season and led the Bills with 1,047 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. But the former first-round draft pick has been plagued with injuries throughout his two-year career, the most recent of which being a broken foot. While Watkins has told reporters he expects to be ready for the season, it's unclear whether the injury could limit him going forward.
What makes this game tough: The Bills figure to be a playoff contender and if they're serious about making the postseason, they should approach December with laser-like focus. The defense, despite losing Williams, figures to be stout again and the offense could take a step in the right direction as Tyrod Taylor continues to grow at quarterback. What makes them beatable: The defense could potentially start as many three rookies next season and that could spell growing pains for the Bills if that's indeed the case. It's probably also worth watching how Taylor grows in his second season as the man in Buffalo and whether or not opposing defenses figure out a blueprint to slow down the dual-threat quarterback.