TORONTO - When they suffered their first loss of the season two weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills got a little help from their friends.
Namely the 69,000-plus crammed into Ralph Wilson Stadium to give the team what in good times is one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL.
The Bills responded to that initial loss of the season to the Cincinnati Bengals with a rousing home win over the Philadelphia Eagles. After each touchdown, the player who scored jumped into the stands, a giddy ripoff of the Lambeau Leap.
So with another home date and a bye week to recover from the latest loss — Sunday’s 27-24 effort to the New York Giants — can the Bills expect a similar pick-me-up?
The NFL experience will descend on Toronto for an Oct. 30 Bills “home” date with the Washington Redskins and if the first three years experience of the Bills In Toronto Series are any indication, there is work to be done.
The crowds at the Rogers Centre through the first five games (two were pre-season) of the five-year, eight-game deal have provided, at best, little more than a neutral-site environment.
In fairness, beyond the ridiculous pricing in year one and the questionable suitability of the Toronto dome as an NFL venue, the Bills haven’t exactly brought a compelling product to get fans here fired up.
In 2008, the game was late in the season, the Bills were 6-6 and no one’s definition of a playoff contender. As a result, Dolphins fans made almost as much noise as Bills fans.
The second year, the record was 4-7 and last year, the winless Bills had already rolled up seven losses.
Now here they are at 4-2 and building excitement around the league. With Washington up next, it will be seen as another possible ‘W’ for the Bills, especially after the awful display by Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman on Sunday.
But will it be enough to make a difference in a city where the response has been largely indifferent?
“The atmosphere should be great going up there to Toronto, I know they are looking forward to seeing us play,” receiver Stevie Johnson said Sunday, likely reciting a company line we’re going to hear regularly. “How we are doing now, everybody up there in Canada should enjoy seeing the Buffalo Bills.
“Hopefully we won’t go up there and see a lot of Redskins fans. I’m pretty sure it should be Buffalo Bill-ed out.”
Johnson and the rest of the Bills may want it, but previous evidence suggests otherwise. Perhaps discouraged by the lack of a true tailgate experience or the notion that they may be hastening their team’s demise by supporting the Toronto series, the flow of Buffalo fans this way on the QEW has been minimal.
Toronto-based Bills fans, meanwhile, would much rather spend less money and have more fun traveling to games at the Ralph.
But with their team still very much in the AFC playoff race, could this be the year real Bills fans liven up the Rogers Centre?
“You know, we’re 4-2 and I would expect it to be more like a home game, a little different than last year,” Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said. “I’m pretty sure there’s going to be more people from Buffalo trying to go to that game.”
With only three dates remaining in the series (this one plus a pre- and regular-season contest next year) it’s time to start wondering what the future holds.
During a visit to the Ralph in Week 5, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear the league sees Toronto as an important part of the Buffalo “region” and as such a necessity to its survival as a small-market team. Owner Ralph Wilson has so far been the only big winner with the $78 million he collected.
The question soon will be whether Rogers Communications or someone else feels the experience is worth coughing up anywhere near that in the future.
“I think we can do it better, and so do the Bills and so do the Rogers people,” Goodell said during his Orchard Park visit. “We want to try to make (the experience) better for the fans that go from Buffalo up to the series, and also for the fans there in Toronto.”
Two Sundays from now, we’ll find out how much a winning team helps.
'0' FOR T.O.
The Bills return to the Rogers Centre for their fourth of five regular-season games on Oct. 30 when the Washington Redskins are the opponent. Here are the results so far:
Date Score Attendance
Dec. 7, 2008 Dolphins 16, Bills 3 52,134
Bills and NFL agreed to hold game after Grey Cup.
Dec, 3, 2009 Jets 19, Bills 13 51,567
Another late-season game that meant little to Bills.
Nov. 7, 2010 Bears 22, Bills 19 50,746
Rather than a divisional rival, NFC team is the opponent.