By Jonah Bronstein
ORCHARD PARK — The outlook was bleak for the Buffalo Bills offensive line coming out of last week’s loss in Minnesota. Knee injuries to starting center Geoff Hangartner and fill-in guard Kraig Urbik depleted a unit that was often overmatched when everyone was healthy this season.
In Sunday’s sloppy slugfest with the Cleveland Browns, the reupholstered line paved the way for a Buffalo victory.
Centered by the returning Eric Wood and platooning an undrafted rookie, Cordaro Howard, with a practice-squad call-up, Chad Rinehart, at right guard, the Bills rushed for 192 yards and possessed the ball for 36:10 in the 13-6 win.
The line was particularly effective during two long drives: a 14-play, 89-yard jaunt in the second quarter that produced the game’s lone touchdown, and a nine-run clock-killer over the final 3:15 of the game.
“I thought they did a phenomenal job controlling the line of scrimmage and that really showed up on that last drive,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
“They did a great job opening up holes for me considering it was a little bit of a shuffle up there,” said running back Fred Jackson, who rushed 29 times for 112 yards. “I could only make plays with those guys. The tight ends, fullbacks and receivers blocking, they all showed up and made some plays for me today.”
Rookie C.J. Spiller picked up 33 yards on eight carries, and Fitzpatrick scrambled four times for an additional 49 yards, while taking just two sacks.
“Fitz is a difference-maker,” Wood said. “He makes us look really good.”
Wood returned after missing two games with an ankle injury, and shifted over to the position he played in college.
“I felt good out there,” Wood said. “Whenever Geoff comes back, I’ll be ready to hop out to guard and give him his spot back. But, for the time-being, it does feel pretty natural to be in there.”
Jackson and the lineman lobbied for the chance to run one more play for one more yard midway through the fourth quarter, after Jackson plowed his way to the goalline on a third-down run. Coach Chan Gailey, however, elected to kick a 19-yard field goal.
“We’re always begging for the fourth-and-ones,” Wood said, “even at ridiculous times.”
A forecasted mix of snow and rain influenced the Bills’ gameplan for Sunday, but the actual weather conditions didn’t play a big role in the game’s outcome.
“It wasn’t an impossible day to throw the ball,” Fitzpatrick said. “The wind wasn’t bad at all. the wetness was there all day, but it was not terrible. That wasn’t your typical day where it is terrible weather and nobody can do anything. It was OK conditions out there.”
“The weather was a thousand times better than everybody expected,” Browns defensive back Joe Haden said.
Bills wideout Lee Evans injured his ankle at the end of tight end Jonathan Stupar’s 35-yard reception in the second quarter and did not return.
Evans has never missed a game in his seven seasons with the Bills, but that streak is likely to end.
“I know he’s going to miss one or two (games),” Gailey said. “I don’t know if he’ll miss the rest of them.”
Gailey reported no other injuries of note.
Gailey said he considered going for the touchdown with about eight minutes remaining, but quickly decided that attempting a 19-yard field goal would be wiser.
“The guys had fought so hard and our defense had been playing good,” he said. “So, if you go for it and make it, everybody’s happy and it all works out, but if you don’t make it and all of the sudden they drive it out there and one fluke play and you’re behind trying to play two-minute (offense) to catch up.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.