The Buffalo Bills are back on the road this week as they face the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. Technically, the Bills were home last week for their game against the Atlanta Falcons, but it was anything but a true home game as they played their annual affair in Toronto's Rogers Centre where they lost in overtime, 34-31.
Bills CEO and president Russ Brandon was upset with his team for the way it found a way to lose a game it led 14-0 early, but he was also irritated by the fact that the Bills lost for the fifth time in six regular-season games north of the border. And Wednesday, during his weekly radio appearance with the team's flagship station, WGR 550-AM, he expressed concern about the future of the Toronto series.
"Obviously, Toronto has been very positive for us down here," Brandon said, meaning ticket sales for games in their real home, Orchard Park. "We've had great growth in the Southern Ontario marketplace the last five years. Back here at Ralph Wilson Stadium that has been a big positive. It has been a challenged market there, and certainly has not translated into enough wins for us there."
A crowd of only 38,969 was announced for the Falcons game, the smallest of the six games that have been played at Rogers Centre. And what continues to be the biggest problem is that the crowd isn't exactly pro-Bills. In all the games since the series began in 2008, it has been nothing more than a neutral site atmosphere for Buffalo with the opposing team getting almost as much support. The Bills' only victory in Toronto came in 2011 when they defeated the Washington Redskins. Otherwise, they have lost to Miami, the New York Jets, Chicago, Seattle and now Atlanta.
"One of the things I said on Jan. 1 of this year (when he was given full power over the franchise from owner Ralph Wilson) was I was going to review every phase of this operation, and this series comes within that framework," Brandon said. "I'm going to look at it very closely."
The Bills renewed the arrangement in January and signed on for five more years. While Brandon said business deals are always negotiable, it seems unlikely the team would want to pay an exit fee to end the contract early. Thus, the Bills have to find a way to win these games while raking in the cash they get from Toronto media giant Rogers Communications.
"Nothing comes above winning," said Brandon. "When I took over the reins on Jan. 1, I said that was the No. 1 focus, and that will be the No. 1 focus. And that's one of the reasons that this will be reviewed in a grand manner."
Coach Doug Marrone would only say that no matter where the team is playing, he has to find a way to win.
"As an organization, everything that we do is going to be evaluated; this is a business, it's not fantasy," said Marrone. "In regards to the Toronto series, my job is to win football games, whether it's at home, in Toronto, or on the road. That's my focus."
And the focus this week is in Tampa Bay where the Bucs, after an 0-8 start, have won three of their last four. One of the keys for the Bills is for their rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, to outplay the Bucs rookie quarterback, Mike Glennon. Manuel has completed 58.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions, while Glennon is completing 62.8 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions since taking over after the release of Josh Freeman.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Buccaneers lead series, 6-3. This is the ninth time in 10 all-time meetings where Buffalo has had to travel to Tampa Bay. The only game played in Buffalo came in 2009, a 33-20 Bills victory. The teams haven't played in Tampa since 2005, a 19-3 Bucs victory.
--The Bills released sixth-year running back Tashard Choice and will likely activate rookie running back Ronnie Wingo for Sunday's game in Tampa.
Choice, third on the depth chart behind C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, had only 35 carries for 126 yards this season. During his time in Buffalo, which began in November 2011, Choice gained 471 yards during his time with the Bills.
"I talked to Tashard and I told him he did not do anything that made us look to do it," said coach Doug Marrone. "It was more of us trying to better ourselves. I've always appreciated his enthusiasm here, how he's gone to work here, but at the end of the day, you have to win and make sure you're getting better."
-- Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso is the leading candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year as he sits second in the NFL with 125 tackles. He's also generating some buzz in fan Pro Bowl voting and of Wednesday was leading all inside linebackers by a wide margin, more than 72,000 more than Dallas' Shawn Lee, and approximately two times more than established stars such as Carolina's Luke Kuechly and San Francisco's Patrick Willis.
Fan ballots make up one-third of the Pro Bowl selection process with players and coaches comprising the rest of the equation. Defensive end Mario Williams is second among defensive ends behind Houston's J.J. Watt, while defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus rank third and fourth at their position.
-- With an open roster spot due to the release of Tashard Choice, the Bills signed free agent tight end Tony Moeaki, who recently received an injury settlement from the Kansas City Chiefs. A former third-round pick of the Chiefs in 2010, he had been on injured reserve since the preseason. He made 47 catches for 556 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, but suffered a knee injury in 2011 and missed half the year. In 2012 he caught 33 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown while starting 14 games. The 26-year-old should push Scott Chandler for playing time, assuming he's in shape and healthy after suffering a fractured shoulder in preseason.
-- The Bills continued to tinker with their practice squad, something they have done all year. They signed offensive tackle Jamaal Johnson-Webb and waived offensive lineman Manase Foketi. Johnson-Webb is a 6-foot-3, 306-pounder who played at Alabama A&M. He originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals this season, before being released before the start of the regular season. He has spent time on the practice squad for both Minnesota and Chicago. "We will always turn over the bottom of the roster to try to make ourselves better," said Marrone.
BY THE NUMBERS: 43 - Sacks by the Bills this season, only six off the team record set in 1995, and already seven more than the Bills had all of 2012. Through 12 games, no Buffalo team has had 43 sacks. The 1996 team had 40 at the three-quarter pole.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't really care what people say, I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help this team. I know what I'm capable of doing." -- CB Stephon Gilmore, talking about his uneven season performance to date.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
-- QB EJ Manuel has yet to win an NFL game away from Ralph Wilson Stadium. He is now 0-3 on the road, and 0-1 in Toronto.
-- LB Jerry Hughes has eight sacks, four more than his previous career high set when he was with the Colts.
-- P Brian Moorman has now played in 186 games for Buffalo, most by a punter and tied for sixth-most in team history.
-- WR Marcus Easley continues to lead the NFL in special teams tackles with 17.
-- RB C.J. Spiller is coming off a season-best 149-yard rushing day against Atlanta which vaulted him past Fred Jackson on the team's rushing yardage leaderboard.
-- DT Kyle Williams has 396 tackles since entering the NFL in 2006, second in that span for a DT only to Justin Smith.
-- TE Tony Moeaki signed a free agent contract with the Bills on Wednesday.
--TE Tony Moeaki, who was just signed Wednesday, practiced on Thursday but probably won't be active for the game.
--DT Kyle Williams was back practice after his normal Wednesday off.
--TE Scott Chandler missed practice because he and his wife are expecting a child.
--WR Marquise Goodwin left practice early on Thursday with a calf strain, but it should not force him to miss the game.
-- DT Kyle Williams took his normal Wednesday off for recovery.
GAME PLAN: The Bills make it no secret that they want to run the ball every week with their tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, and Buffalo is the only team in the NFL that has a pair of backs with at least 600 yards rushing. That won't change in this game, and it will be interesting to see which Bucs defense shows up. There have been a few games where Tampa Bay has been outstanding against the run, holding Miami to two yards and Atlanta to 18. However, there have been games in which they have allowed 163 (last week to Carolina), 198, 156 and 152.
EJ Manuel played another turnover-free game against the Falcons but he didn't make much happen in the passing game, throwing for 210 yards with only three completions totaling 20-plus yards. Going against a Tampa Bay secondary that includes CB Darrelle Revis and FS Dashon Goldson, Manuel will face a tough challenge, as will the Buffalo receivers.
On defense, the Bills lead the league with 43 sacks and they will pin their ears back and get after rookie QB Mike Glennon. Tampa Bay's line has allowed 33 sacks, 26 against Glennon, as his mobility is limited. The Bucs rank 31st in the league in yards and 30th in points, so the Bills believe they can dictate this game with their defense as Glennon is coming off a game in which he produced only 206 yards total offense against Carolina.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bills WR Stevie Johnson vs. Bucs CB Darrelle Revis -- These two had some tremendous matchups when Revis played for the Jets, and Johnson was one of the few WRs in the NFL who enjoyed legitimate success against Revis. This will be an intriguing renewal of that rivalry.
--Bills DE Mario Williams vs. Bucs OTs Donald Penn and Demar Dotson -- The Bucs did not allow more than three sacks in any of their first 10 games, but have allowed nine in the last two games. Williams, who has 12 sacks this year, will line up on both sides and test the Bucs big-time.
--Bills ST Marcus Easley vs. Bucs KR/PR Eric Page -- Easley leads the NFL with 17 special teams tackles, while the Bucs, despite their 3-9 record, have been solid on returns with Page averaging 26.6 yards on kickoffs and 11.1 on punt returns. The kicking game could play a key role in the outcome.
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