BY JOHN WAWROW The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — ORCHARD PARK — Bills receiver Stevie Johnson has a bone to pick with the NFL schedule maker.
With temperatures dropping and snow piling up outside the team’s facility, Johnson wondered who had the bright idea to have Buffalo (4-7) “host” the warm-weather Atlanta Falcons (2-9) inside the climate-controlled confines of Toronto’s Rogers Centre on Sunday.
“Yeah, they must have fixed the schedule or something out there in Atlanta. It’s supposed to be out here at the Ralph,” Johnson said Wednesday, referring to the Bills home, Ralph Wilson Stadium. “Who put the schedule together to have them come to Toronto?”
Johnson and his teammates are finding themselves at a sudden disadvantage as Buffalo prepares for its annual trip north of the border to resume the “Bills in Toronto” series, which was first established in 2008 and renewed for another five years in January.
The Falcons have been eliminated from playoff contention. The Bills come off their bye week still on the fringes of the AFC postseason hunt. They’re 3-3 at Orchard Park, including a decisive 37-14 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 17.
“It is what it is,” Johnson said. “We can’t really make excuses for it. We can’t complain about it. We just got to go out and try to handle business.”
An added wrinkle to the game is news that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — the company that controls the Leafs and NBA Raptors — has aligned itself with New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi to make a push to bring an NFL franchise to Toronto. One logical option would be the Bills.
In establishing the series, the Bills turned to their neighbors to the north in a bid to expand their region.
The deal provides the Bills a much-needed boost to their small-market franchise’s revenue base by essentially leasing out a home game to Canadian communications giant, Rogers Communications.
What the Bills lose, however, is a distinct late-season edge they would normally get playing in the cold and blustery conditions in Buffalo.
“Yeah, we’d love to get them outside in the elements. That would definitely be an advantage,” center Eric Wood said. “But this is a deal we’ve got to embrace. It’s important to our franchise. You can’t go up there with a bad attitude.”
Like it or not, the Bills are resigned to knowing they have no choice when it comes to making the two-hour trek to Canada’s largest city and financial capital.
It’s a metropolis of more than 5 million residents, where the NHL’s Maple Leafs dominate the sports pages, and a place better known these days for Mayor Rob Ford’s various attention-grabbing troubles.
Wood drew headlines of his own last year after Buffalo’s 50-17 loss to Seattle at Toronto.
Unable to make the trip because of a sprained right knee, Wood grew frustrated watching on TV and seeing the lack of support the Bills got from the crowd.
He called it “a joke,” and added: “Those non-Bills fans that go to the game are just cheering for plays as opposed to cheering for a team. And that kills you.”
Wood was in a more diplomatic mood this week when reminded of his comments.
“It was a heat of the moment-type deal,” he said. “I was excited about the opportunity to go up there and hopefully get a win. And I’m approaching it the same way this year.”
Getting a win would be a start.
The Bills are 1-4 in regular-season games at Toronto, with their lone win a 23-0 victory over Washington in 2011. The series opened with a dud, when Buffalo managed just 163 yards offense in a 16-3 loss to Miami.
Turnout has been an issue in part because of expensive ticket prices and the perennial struggles of a Bills team that’s not made the playoffs since 1999.
Though the first four games were listed as sellouts, Rogers acknowledged the count included thousands of freebies.
And those fans that do show up represent the mixed loyalties Canadians have toward the NFL. Though a majority of fans attending games wear Bills jerseys, it’s not uncommon to spot others wearing a wide range of colors — from the Cowboys, to 49ers, and even the CFL Argonauts.
First-year Bills coach Doug Marrone said it’s up to his team to generate an edge.
“In order to create that advantage, you have to go up there and play well,” Marrone said. “I think we do have some fans in Toronto. And I think if we play well, we’ll create more fans.”