Are the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers talented enough to be featured on primetime eight times in 2020?
The National Football League, which continues to proceed with business as usual despite the COVID-19 pandemic, certainly thinks so.
Following free agency and a virtual draft that went off without a hitch, the league released its much anticipated schedule last Thursday, and until it’s told otherwise, will plan on beginning its season on Sept. 10.
Though it’s certainly fair to call that target date unrealistic given the world around us, it’s a welcome sight of normalcy to look forward to, particularly for fans of the Bills and Steelers.
Two playoff bubble teams will have the national viewing audience across Thursday, Sunday and Monday night packages spread throughout the season, highlighted by a matchup against each other in primetime for a second year in a row on Dec. 15.
Here are three of the most intriguing games on the 2020 slate for each team:
Week 1 — at New York Giants
Monday, Sept. 15, 7:15 p.m.
Barring any setbacks or a new ailment, this game will mark the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — exactly a year to the date from when he last played.
And though the Steelers remained above .500 with the duo of Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges splitting games under center a season ago, having Big Ben back to lead the offense gives an added layer of optimism and potential for a team that still has plenty of holes at other positions. Even more compelling for Roethlisberger’s return is that it will be nationally televised, the first MNF game of 2020, and against what should be a much-improved New York Giants team led by Daniel Jones and former Penn State star Saquon Barkley.
Week 6 — vs. Cleveland Browns
Sunday, Oct. 18, 1 p.m.
More punches? Another brawl? Will cooler heads prevail? The most fascinating thing leading into this matchup is that nobody knows for certain what will happen when these two teams line up for the first time, with all of the actors present, since the infamous Rudolph/Maurkice Pouncey vs. Myles Garrett fight last year.
Rudolph won’t see the field unless there’s an injury to Roethlisberger or the game turns into a blowout, but Pouncey and Garrett will line up across from each other plenty and who knows how either will react. The game is at Heinz Field, too, setting up what should be a loud — and well-deserved — chorus of boos rained down on Garrett. And outside of the drama, this early season matchup could have major implications in the playoff race as well.
Week 12 — at Baltimore Ravens
Thursday, Nov. 26, 8:20 p.m.
If you want to make a statement to the rest of the league, there is no better time to do it than on a national stage, on Thanksgiving night, against one of the league’s most exciting teams, quarterbacked by arguably its best player in Lamar Jackson.
The Steelers were swept in both meetings against Baltimore a season ago, but took the Ravens to overtime in their first matchup in early October. The explosive Jackson had one of his worst games of the season in that contest as the league’s MVP threw three interceptions and was held to just 161 yards through the air and another 70 on the ground. He rested for the Week 17 game, where the backups defeated Pittsburgh 28-10.
Week 6 — vs. Kansas City
Thursday, Oct. 15, 8:15 p.m.
Buffalo’s gift for its first primetime home game in two years: A date against Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champs.
By Week 6, it’ll be evident if the Chiefs have any of that dreaded Super Bowl “fatigue” or if they’ll pick up where last season left off. Either way, it’ll be a tough matchup for a Bills team against an opponent that has much more experience playing on the big stage. It’ll also mark only the second head-to-head coaching matchup between Andy Reid and Sean McDermott.
McDermott spent nearly a decade with ‘Big Red’ in Philadelphia and is one of many former Reid assistants who have gone on to become head coaches. The Bills defense — considered by many to be in the league’s top five — will have to show its mettle against the league’s top offense in primetime.
Week 8 — vs. New England
Sunday, Nov. 1, 1 p.m.
Here it is.
After nearly two decades of soul-crushing losses to the Patriots, this will be Buffalo’s first meeting with its divisional rival sans Tom Brady. The greatest quarterback of all time went 31-3 against the Bills, including a 6-0 mark in the McDermott era.
But don’t count me as one of the people who think that the Pats are going to completely fall off a cliff without Brady. They still have Bill Bellichick, a top offensive mind in Josh McDaniels, and a top-10 defense. They won’t be favored in many games out of the gate in 2020 — including this one — but if the Bills take their opponents lightly here, it’ll add another tally in New England’s two-decade long dominance over Buffalo.
Week 13 — vs. San Francisco
Monday, Dec. 7, 8:15 p.m.
The Bills’ history on MNF over the last decade-and-a-half has been absolutely brutal.
There was the fourth-quarter collapse against Dallas in 2007, the Leodis McKelvin fumble against New England in 2009 and the Derek Anderson-led offensive struggle in a loss to those Patriots in 2018.
So, what better time to reverse those fortunes than a cross-country trip to California against one of the NFC’s darlings in the 49ers. Both teams will almost certainly be in the thick of the playoff race at the time, so this game will have some big implications. This will be the start of three primetime games in four weeks for Buffalo.
Week 14 — Steelers at Bills
Sunday, Dec. 13, 1 p.m.
For a second straight season, the area’s two most popular teams will meet in the Sunday night window in December.
Last season’s result — a 17-10 Bills win at Heinz Field — wasn’t decided until the game’s final seconds. It wasn’t the prettiest offensive game by any means, with Hodges throwing four interceptions and Josh Allen completing just 13 passes for 139 yards. But defense and a breakout game from Bills rookie running back Devin Singletary (89 scrimmage yards on 22 touches) carried Buffalo and gave it a critical win for its playoff push.
The game is likely to play out in a similar fashion in 2020, with both teams slugging it out for one of the three AFC Wild Card slots — remember, seven teams from each conference now make the playoffs.