Here are the five most intriguing opponents the Bills face in 2021
My interest in Wednesday night’s release of the NFL schedule is strictly a selfish one.
We already know who the Buffalo Bills are playing in 2021, and we know which games are at home and which are on the road. Now, we find out when the games will be played, and at what time.
And so for me and the other reporters who cover the team, in a year when in all likelihood we will be able to travel to the road games after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we get to find out where we’ll be spending each weekend between Labor Day and, well, hopefully the middle of February.
In the rotating NFL schedule matrix, here’s how the Bills’ schedule was formulated:
As always, they play each of their AFC East rivals, the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins, home and away for a total of six games;
This year it’s their turn to play the four teams in each of the AFC South (Titans, Colts, Jaguars, Texans) and NFC South (Saints, Buccaneers, Falcons and Panthers) for a total of eight games;
And because they won the AFC East for the first time since 1995, the Bills will be pitted against three other 2020 division winners, the Chiefs, Steelers and Washington Football Team.
This segment of the schedule used to be just two games against like-finishing teams, but the NFL’s addition of a 17th game this year added Washington to Buffalo’s schedule, and because that’s a home game, the Bills have nine at Highmark Stadium. Next year, they will have to play nine on the road.
Based on the records of all the teams in 2020 – which is a mostly useless way to determine strength of schedule because so many things change from year to year – the Bills are tied for the eighth-easiest slate as their opponents went 130-142 last year, a winning percentage of .478.
But remember, that figure is greatly influenced by the fact that Buffalo plays the four worst teams from last season, the 2-14 Jets twice, the 1-15 Jaguars, and the 4-12 Texans and Falcons. Add that up (counting the Jets twice) and those teams were 13-67. That’s a pretty unusual anomaly.
Regardless of when the games are played, here are the five opponents that hold the most intrigue for me:
1. New England Patriots
It was certainly enjoyable to watch the Bills finally get over on their long-time nemesis in 2020, not only winning the division and ending the Patriots’ 11-year stranglehold, but sweeping them for the first time since 1999, the year before Bill Belichick arrived.
Great indeed, but now the Bills have to do it again if they hope to prove they are a team built for the long haul because a one-off in the division is not enough. The Bills still have the better roster heading into 2021, best in the division in fact, so anything short of another AFC East crown is going to be a major disappointment.
The Patriots will be the biggest impediment to that quest and they’re going to be a tough nut to crack after suffering their first sub.-500 record since 2000 and missing the playoffs for just the third time in the 21st century.
They spent big money in free agency, they may have picked their QB of the future in the first round of the draft in Mac Jones, and they’re also getting back a couple key players who opted out of playing in 2020.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Never mind what happened in the Super Bowl when the Chiefs were blown out by Tampa Bay; this is still an outstanding team that is quarterbacked by the league’s best, Patrick Mahomes. Barring something crazy, the Chiefs will be the team standing in Buffalo’s way in the battle to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Last year, Kansas City handled the Bills pretty easily in both meetings, 26-17 during the regular season in a game that didn’t seem that close, and then 38-24 in the AFC Championship Game.
The Bills have to find a way to be more competitive, especially on defense trying to combat all those weapons Mahomes has at his disposal. It’s possible they could meet twice again in 2021, and obviously, 0-2 won’t get it done.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There have been some projections that the NFL believes this game is so juicy that it might send Buffalo to Tampa Bay for the season-opening game in primetime Thursday, Sept. 9.
The defending champions always get to host the league’s first game, and the Bills are an interesting opponent for a few reasons. First and foremost, they played in the AFC title game and big things are expected in 2021, and they also have two of the league’s true stars coming off incredible years, quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
But perhaps the No. 1 reason why this game would be so attractive on a national scale is that Tom Brady has absolutely owned the Bills for two decades. It would be quite interesting to see if he can continue his mastery with a new team, against a team that is now formidable unlike almost every Buffalo team he battered between 2001 and 2019.
4. Indianapolis Colts
The Bills defeated the Colts in the first round of the playoffs in January, and Indy makes a return visit to Orchard Park with its new quarterback, Carson Wentz.
Wentz will be one of the most intriguing players to watch in 2021 as the former No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft tries to prove that his career – which bottomed out last year in Philadelphia – can be resurrected.
The Colts will be co-favorites along with the Titans in the AFC South, so defeating them would give Buffalo a key tiebreaker if needed when the playoff picture shakes out. Of course, the same thing holds true when Buffalo plays the Titans.
Remember how nice it was last year that Buffalo had two home playoff games? Winning head-to-head against another playoff contender could mean a lot come January.
5. Washington Football Team
Prior to this year and the addition of the 17th game, the Bills wouldn’t have been scheduled to play Washington and the other NFC East teams until 2023. Instead, Washington and Buffalo are back at it, and guess who Washington will likely have playing quarterback? None other than old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick, as we all know, has never made it to the playoffs in his 16-year career. The closest he came was in 2015 with the Jets, and all he had to do was beat the Bills in the season finale and he would have made it. Alas, Buffalo prevailed 22-17, the same score it beat Fitzy and the Jets in the first matchup that year, a killer sweep that few Jets fans have forgotten.
For his career, Fitzpatrick has started eight games against the Bills playing for the Jets, Dolphins and Texans and his record is 3-5 with 11 TDs and eight interceptions. However, it’s possible this Washington team could be the best one he’s played on.
Washington won the 2020 NFC East with a lame 7-9 record, but it was a team clearly on the rise in the second half of the season and this won’t be the easy game for Buffalo that some people might believe it will be.
If Fitzpatrick has anything left, he has some pretty good players on his side of the ball led by wide receiver Terry McLaurin, running backs J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson, and another ex-Bill, tight end Logan Thomas, plus one of the NFL’s better defenses to back him up.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.