The three most important things of the twenty or so that are always on my mind when the excitement of a new football season draws near…
By the time we kick it off Sunday, the Bills will have gone 644 days since the last time they played a game that mattered in front of a 100 percent packed stadium in Orchard Park. That goes all the way back to the Ravens game week 14 in 2019.
While the Bills are by no means finished, last season was the year this team graduated to ‘elite’. Their offense advanced to ‘feared’. Their quarterback discussed as ‘MVP’. Back when the Ryan Fitzpatrick Bills stunned the Patriots in a 2011 week three game, the home crowd reached a new level of electricity. It was 70-thousand people digesting “is this really happening?!?” all at the same time.
That should have happened last year. Maybe it would have been the Seattle shellacking or the Sunday night win over the Steelers. At some point, Billsmafia should have enjoyed a full-throated celebration of what their team has accomplished. Covid, however, had other ideas.
Instead, all that energy is now pent up and waiting for a release that I expect will happen Sunday against Pittsburgh. This is my 22nd season covering the Bills and I can count on one hand the number of games where I’ve been this excited just to see how crazy the home crowd can get. It should be a pretty big advantage for the Bills.
Sneaky Injury Concern
If you made a list of Bills that would be the most concerning to be injured for a game, I’m not sure Star Lotulelei or Taron Johnson reach the top 20 most weeks. I think this week is different.
Lotulelei will not play against the Steelers because of a calf injury suffered in the preseason finale against the Packers. His calling card is run stopping and I’m on board with the notion that stopping the run (or establishing it) is becoming less and less necessary in the 21st century NFL game. That goes double for a team like the Bills who can score so many points that opponents won’t be able to keep pace even if they do run it well.
That said, if the Steelers pull an upset, I’d expect a big game from rookie running back Najee Harris to be among the headlines. Those headlines would almost certainly be followed by notes about how Pittsburgh dominated time of possession and the Bills had an abnormally low number of possessions. Without Lotulelei, the chances for all that does rise.
Johnson is going to play Sunday and did have a full practice on Friday. He was also wearing a club on his right hand/wrist last week and a brace on it this week. The Steelers are the rare team with enough high level receivers to really exploit a nickel corner issue. If I were new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Canada, I’d at least be trying to test Johnson early to see how good that hand really is.
Young On Young
There’s plenty of excitement about what the Bills brand new pass rush can do. That’s, in no small part, due to how much fans and media believe it’s the most likely thing that could push Buffalo the last step to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh arrives in Buffalo with a re-tooled offensive line that will start two rookies and one because of an injury. The Steelers O-line wasn’t much good last year and the feeling about it this season among Black and Gold Nation can be summed up with “well… it can’t get worse”. Bills fans smell blood in the water. Maybe more accurately, there better be blood in the water this game because if not against this offensive line, then when?
I’m slow to make that assumption. Rookie means inexperience. It doesn’t mean unable. The Steelers want Kendrick Green protecting the quarterback the same way the Bills want Greg Rousseau attacking the quarterback. It’ll be weeks before anyone knows if this Steelers new offensive really is any good or bad. I think needing or expecting the Bills young pass rushers to produce based on their preseason success and the imagined status of an offensive line no one has ever seen together is a touch premature.
I have loved the Bills in this game for weeks. I made them my survivor pick for week one. If it were the Patriots or the Chiefs or the AFC North All-Stars on the other sideline, I still think the Bills would win.
Highmark Stadium is going to be bananas. If the Bills get the ball first and Josh Allen goes straight down the field for a lightning bolt touchdown, I think the place might shake to the ground. I just don’t see how the Bills lose.
There’s one thing that gives me pause. Back in 2012, the Bills opened the season in New Jersey against a Jets team coming off a missed playoff season that followed two straight in the AFC Championship. That missed playoff season ended with players arguing and general embarrassment. The Jets spent that offseason getting lambasted.
That Jets team still had most of its playoff level talent and a fiery motivator in head coach Rex Ryan when the 2012 season began. After getting dragged by the football world for months, the Jets were ready for bear when Buffalo showed up for week one and hammered the Bills by three touchdowns.
The Steelers have a better team than those Jets and a better head coach in Mike Tomlin who has plenty of ability to build up a locker room with fire and brimstone. They’ve been hearing for months that Ben Roethlisberger is shot, their time is done and they now must prepare for their rivals in Cleveland to take over the division. “Ready for Bear” sounds like an appropriate description for the Steelers Sunday.
The difference here is that the Bills are home this time and not on the road (I’d view this game LOTS differently if it were at Heinz Field). This Bills also have the top to bottom talent to withstand a lesser team playing with exceptional motivation.
I think the Steelers hang in for quite a while, but the Bills never lose control and put the game out of hand late. I think this game will be remembered for the three hour party Billsmafia missed out on last season. I think this win will be the first in a season that will conclude with a trip to the Super Bowl for the Bills. Bonus pick alert: My FWIW official Super Bowl prediction is Tampa v. Buffalo (don’t ask who I think wins). As for this week, give me the Bills 37-17.