Sullivan: Bills often the most interesting game on the NFL schedule

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen (17) celebrates with teammate Stefon Diggs (14), Dion Dawkins (73), and Zack Moss (20) after connecting with Diggs for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

As the sports world awaited the ceremonial unveiling of the NFL schedule on Wednesday, many Buffalo fans were hoping the Bills would get the opening Thursday night spot against Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers.

A game on opening night would have been a worthy showcase for Josh Allen and the Bills, recognition that they’re still an ascending league power and must-see TV, one of the most entertaining shows in the sport.

But I like this better. 

The Bills will open the 2021 season at home on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. against the Steelers. Buffalo fans deserve to welcome back their beloved team in the most conventional setting, in a renamed and sold-out Highmark Stadium, on a gorgeous, sunny late-summer day in Orchard Park. 

There will be ample opportunity to perform on the national stage. The Bills have four primetime night games, three on the road: At Kansas City on Sunday night on Oct. 10, at Tennessee on Monday, Oct. 18, and at New Orleans on Thanksgiving Night. The only home prime-time night game, barring a flexed game late in the season, is against the Patriots on Dec. 6. 

The Bills play both of last season’s Super Bowl teams, the Chiefs and Bucs, on the road. But overall, the schedule is relatively favorable. The league goes to 17 games for the first time and the Bills got their swing game at home against the Washington football team in Week 3. 

Oh, that should mean our old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick, who missed last season’s finale against Miami with Covid, will be back again. Fitz is now the Washington starter. At age 38, he will likely extend his own league record by starting and throwing a touchdown pass for a ninth NFL team. 

The Bills’ first five games are all at 1 p.m., including three in September. That’s a nice reward for fans who were forced to witness last year’s breakthrough season from afar. Maybe the Bills will break the franchise scoring record again. After all, they have an extra game to do it. 

There should be a lot of offensive fireworks in the NFL, which smashed the record for team scoring per game last season. It’s a sport that is increasingly geared toward the forward pass and riding a wave of gifted young quarterbacks.

Virtually every NFL game features a hot young quarterback or two nowadays. That’s the league’s driving ambition — more high-scoring games that seize the attention of a TV audience fixated on offense. 

You don’t have to look far to find a good show. Here’s a weekly look ahead at some of the more intriguing games on the 2021 schedule:

Week 1, Dallas at Tampa Bay: The season debut. Seven different NFC teams have reached the Super Bowl in the last seven seasons. None of the first six even reached the NFC title game the next year. Can the Bucs, the first Super Bowl winner to return all 22 starters, break the trend? Tom Brady, who turns 44 in August, will appear in his 104th prime-time night game in the season opener. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, who signed a new deal worth $40 million a year, was on a 6,000-yard passing pace when he went down for the season with a leg injury after five games a year ago. 

Week 2, Kansas City at Baltimore: A Sunday night showdown between Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 MVP, and Lamar Jackson, who won it a year later. Mahomes, who will be motivated after getting tormented by the Bucs in the Super Bowl, gets up for Jackson and the Ravens. He’s beaten them three years in a row, passing for 377, 374 and 385 yards. Last year, Mahomes threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Chiefs ended Baltimore’s 14-game regular-season winning streak. Jackson had 97 yards passing.

Week 3, Arizona at Jacksonville: The young QBs keep on coming. Kyler Murray, the first pick in the 2019 draft, takes on Trevor Lawrence, who went first overall this year to the Jaguars. How will Urban Meyer fare in his debut as an NFL head man? Will running back Travis Etienne validate the decision to draft him 25th overall, making some Bills fans wish Brandon Beane had traded up for Etienne in the draft? Murray had an uneven second season for the Cardinals, who went 2-5 after the Hail Murray win over the Bills. 

Week 4, Tampa Bay at New England: Brady’s triumphant return to Foxboro, where he won his first six Super Bowls. Bill Belichick is probably game-planning for this Sunday nighter as we speak. The Pats should be a lot better with a pile of free-agent signings and Covid opt-out returnees. Who will be the quarterback a month into the season, Cam Newton or rookie Mac Jones? I wouldn’t bet against Belichick having his team back in the playoff hunt by the time they meet the Bills twice in December.

Week 5, Bills at KC: Sunday night at Arrowhead, a rematch of the AFC title game. The next step for Allen is proving he can beat Mahomes, who got the better of him twice in 2020. The scary thing is, KC’s offense could be better after revamping an offensive line that allowed a record 29 pressures in the Super Bowl. The Bills drafted edge rushers to deal with Mahomes. They had few answers for KC a year ago, conceding the run in an October loss and getting shredded by the rhythm passing attack in the title game.

Week 6, LA Chargers at Baltimore: Justin Herbert was NFL offensive rookie of the year after throwing a rookie-record 31 touchdown passes. He should be even better behind an improved Chargers offensive line that added Rashawn Slater, the best offensive tackle in the draft and a steal at 13th overall. The Ravens also made moves to help their young quarterback, signing Sammy Watkins and drafting speedsters Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace to add some playmakers to a limited passing offense. 

Week 7, Lions at LA Rams: One of those matchups that seem made-for TV. The Lions and Rams swapped quarterbacks in March. LA got veteran Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and first-round picks in 2022 and ’23. It was a steep price, but the Rams wanted a better QB to make a Super Bowl run with a defense that led the NFL in points and yards allowed in 2020. Detroit never won a playoff game with Stafford — they haven’t won one in 30 years — and figured it was time to move on to a younger option. 

Week 8: Miami at Bills: On Halloween, the Dolphins return to the scene of last year’s frightful finale. Needing to win to make the playoffs, they lost, 56-26. Miami improved its offense on paper after signing wideout Will Fuller and drafting wideout Jaylen Waddle and tight end Hunter Long. But if the Dolphins want to be taken seriously in the AFC East, they need to get more out of second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa, who was horrible in the finale and needs to prove he can throw the ball down the field.

Week 9, Green Bay at Kansas City: This ‘17th game’ between conference finalists will pit former MVP quarterbacks if Aaron Rodgers stays with the Packers. But the big story around the draft was Rodgers wanting out after 16 seasons. The Pack signed Blake Bortles on Wednesday, presumably because Jordan Love isn’t ready to start. Green Bay led the NFL in points last season (the Bills were second), so there’s firepower for whoever lines up under center, making this an intriguing mid-season clash.

Week 10, LA Rams at San Francisco: Coach Kyle Shanahan says Jimmy Garoppolo is still his guy at QB. But I don’t imagine the Niners made the pricy move up to No. 3 in the draft so Trey Lance could warm the bench for long. A lot went wrong for San Fran last season, but they’re still a very talented squad that could make another run with strong play at quarterback. This Monday nighter is a game Stafford has to win to justify the Rams’ decision to invest so heavily in him.

Week 11, Seattle vs. Arizona: Another compelling clash in the NFC West, perhaps the game’s most talented division. Russell Wilson vs Kyler Murray. Those two hooked up in one of the most entertaining games of 2020, with the Cardinals winning, 37-34, in overtime. The teams combined for 1,091 yards. Wilson threw for 388 yards, Murray for 360. Seattle has had nine straight winning seasons with Wilson, who threw for 40 TDs last season. 

Week 12, Raiders at Cowboys: Thanksgiving Day. Jon Gruden’s Raiders get involved in some high-scoring games with quarterback Derek Carr, who had a nice year in 2020. By this point in the season, we’ll know if Prescott is living up to his $40 million salary, or if Jerry Jones is steaming mad. Grab some leftovers when it’s over and settle in for the Bills at Saints, who got five prime-time games despite Drew Brees retiring.

Week 13, Indianapolis at Houston: This would be a more intriguing matchup if Deshaun Watson wasn’t embroiled in 22 lawsuits for alleged sexual misdeeds. He’s not likely to be with the Texans much longer. But at some point, we need to check in with Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, who’s trying to resurrect his career with Frank Reich. Indy has a strong supporting cast, so Wentz can lead them to the playoffs if he’s healthy.

Week 14, Bills at Tampa Bay: After a year’s respite, Buffalo fans get to summon two decades of accumulated Brady hatred. Remember what he said about our hotels? He was 32-3 against the Bills as a Patriot, and he only played a half in one of them. The NFL scheduled this after the Bills played on Monday night in New England. So you can hate the league, too.

Week 15, Kansas City at LA Chargers: I was thinking Ravens at Packers, which would have pitted the last two MVPs. But I’m sick of Rodgers. Give me Mahomes and Herbert, who has a good chance to be an MVP some day. Herbert threw for 303 yards and three TDs against the Chiefs in the finale last year, though KC was resting its starters. This one should be more meaningful for LA and its new head coach, Brandon Staley.

Week 16, Jaguars at Jets: On the day after Christmas, the top two picks in the 2021 draft — Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson— will likely meet. New Jets coach Robert Saleh said Wilson did a nice job on the first day of rookie minicamp. Has any coach ever ripped a first-round pick on the first day of rookie camp? If Lawrence and Wilson are the real deal, it’ll be an interesting decade in the AFC, which is loaded with top young QBs.

Week 17, Carolina at New Orleans: Not the most attractive slate of games. Falcons at Buffalo, really? But at some point, I have to check in with Sam Darnold, who still has potential to be a viable NFL quarterback with a competent surrounding cast. For all I know, he might be benched by this point. Let’s hope tailback Christian McCaffrey is upright and back to his 2,392-yard form of 2019. Wow, he rushed for 1,397 and caught 116 balls!

Week 18, Cleveland at Cincinnati: Baker Mayfield has all the commercials, I might as well give him a game. Mayfield and Joe Burrow, former No. 1 overall draft picks, hooked up for a couple of shootouts in the battle for Ohio in Burrow’s rookie season. The Browns won both, 35-30 and 37-34. Burrow had 316 yards passing (on 61 throws) and three TDs in the first game. Mayfield had five TD passes and Burrow 406 passing yards in the second. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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