TORONTO — This game isn’t what it appeared to be when the NFL released its schedule last April.
It seemed the Bills lost more of a home-field advantage than usual when they were slated to play the Falcons, a certified dome team, this afternoon at the Rogers Centre (WUTV-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 101.9 FM, 550 AM, 4:05 p.m.) than at Ralph Wilson Stadium on the first day of December.
After all, Atlanta had made three straight playoff appearances and, last January at the Georgia Dome, blew a 17-0 lead over the 49ers and saw San Francisco advance to the Super Bowl via a 28-24 victory.
Many felt that, with an outstanding offense triggered by young star quarterback Matt Ryan, two outstanding receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White, a Hall-of-Fame-bound tight end in Tony Gonzalez and bruising free agent running back Steven Jackson, this was the Falcons’ year to win the Lombardi Trophy.
Meanwhile, the Bills have their well-publicized 13-year absence from the playoffs and hardly seemed to be in a position to give up the conditions this month at Ralph Wilson Stadium to play a team as potent as Atlanta indoors.
But 12 games into the season, this game has an almost reverse look.
The Falcons, 2-9, have the worst record in the NFC and are tied with Houston for the most futile in the league.
Atlanta comes in against the Bills having lost five straight.
Buffalo, meanwhile, is 4-7, but still one of nine teams battling for the final playoff berth in the conference.
Indeed, the Bills are a 3-point favorite, only the second time this season the oddsmakers have favored them.
BOTH TEAMS are rested, the Falcons having last played a week ago Thursday, losing 17-13 to New Orleans at the Georgia Dome and the Bills coming off their bye week following a 37-14 thrashing of the Jets at “The Ralph.”
The team stats are revealing.
Atlanta, with Jones (broken foot) and starting left tackle Sam Baker (knee) on injured reserve, and White (ankle/hamstring) and Jackson (hamstring) missing time all season, still ranks 13th (of 32) in the league in yards gained, but only 26th in points scored.
But the Falcons’ defense has been the real problem, ranking 27th overall, 28th against the run, 24th versus the pass and 29th in points surrendered.
Buffalo’s offense, meanwhile, is 19th in yards gained and 23rd in points scored while the defense is an improving 15th overall (12th against the pass, 23rd versus the runs) and 19th in points.
HEADING into today’s game, even rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, who played his college ball at Florida State, lamented not playing at “The Ralph” ... sort of.
“Yeah, I hate it ... I want to go out there and play in the Ralph (today),” he said, unable to stifle a laugh. “No, I’m just kidding, but hey, I’m sure it’ll snow again on one of these Sundays ... maybe the Dolphins game when we come back or I’m sure when we play New England they might have some snow.”
But he added, “I didn’t draw up the schedule, so there’s not much I can do about it. (Atlanta is) used to playing indoors, but we’re used to practicing inside and playing, so I don’t think it’ll be a benefit on their behalf.
“It’s my first year in the league. I haven’t played in Toronto yet, but it’s another game. I don’t think we’re necessarily focused on it being in Toronto. It’s still a home game for us, we just want to go focus on winning.”
AND, FALCONS’ coach Mike Smith claims a similar goal.
“In the NFL you’re only promised 16 opportunities to go out and play each season, and you have to take advantage of every one of them,” he said. “Unfortunately, thus far this season, we haven’t taken advantage of it. And we’re not a relevant team right now. But that doesn’t change our preparation one bit.
“We’re a very competitive group of guys that want to go out and perform well. We want to finish this season off strong. We’ve not played like we’re capable (of) and coached like we’re capable (of) and we need to finish strong these last five games.”
But one of his concerns is Atlanta’s struggles against opposing ground games, especially facing Buffalo’s Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller today.
“We’ve not hit our markers in a lot of areas and run defense is one of them, especially over the last four weeks,” he conceded.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us (against the ground) game because there’s two really good running backs in Jackson and Spiller. The Bills are the only team (in the NFL) that have two rushers that have 500 yards rushing. We’ve got to do a better job ... we’ve (given up) way too many explosive plays.”
BUFFALO, of course, isn’t unaware of the Falcons’ struggles against opposing ground games.
“It’s something we feel like we can take advantage of, but you never know what team is going to show up (for Atlanta),” Fred Jackson said. “We have some stuff in that we want to try to get rolling and take advantage of running the football.
“But their record doesn’t indicate how good they are. We know that. You can see when breaking down film, they’re a lot better team than that 2-9 record. We know we’re going to have to show up and play a great team. They were being talked about as a Super Bowl favorite for a reason, so that’s something that we have to take into account when we step on that field.”