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Crossing the border never felt so bad

Oh, goody. Another installment of the Canadian "Super Series." I'll bet you couldn't wait to pop out of bed this morning, so you could pack the cooler, get the grille fired up, call up all your buddies, then head to the back deck for another epic tailgating session.

OK, so a few of the diehards actually made the ride up the QEW for this afternoon's big game. I salute you. Make sure to bring ear plugs, so you can drown out the infernal music that comes blaring over the loudspeakers, as they try to simulate the atmosphere of a real Bills home game.

Evidently, the hosts will do their best to recreate the home experience outside the Rogers Centre (was Kent Hull a centre?), featuring "tailgate-style" food, Bud Girls, prizes and interactive elements, including the mechanical buffalo and some band called Finger Eleven.

I'm not sure which will be the more obscure act -- Finger Eleven or the eleven guys suited up for a beleaguered Redskins offense at the Rog today.

But I digress. Look, I have nothing against Canada. I love the place: The people, the culture, the countryside, the golf courses, the hockey, the Tragically Hip. Southern Ontarians are a big part of the game-day experience in Orchard Park. A handful of them even leave sober.

It's giving up one of the eight home games that stinks. My position is well-established here in the fourth year. Let's just say it doesn't quite rank up with going to four straight Super Bowls. I hate it. I've called it folly, phony, a one-week furlough for the 12th Man, a ripoff, a sad day in franchise history.

This year, it seems even worse. In previous years, there wasn't a lot at stake. In '08, they were technically still alive, but Jauron and the boys were already circling the drain. The last two years, it felt like sending your kid off to camp when he'd been getting on your nerves. You want them? Go ahead, take them!

But this year is different. This game actually matters. The Bills are 4-2. There's a scent of playoffs in the autumn air. They've been consistent and compelling entertainment, averaging 31.3 points a game. They're coming off the first five-game stretch in 13 years where every game was decided by a touchdown or less.

They're looking to begin a season 4-0 at home for the first time since 1995. They haven't scored 30 points in their first three home games and won all three since 1991. So the Bills return "home," eager to regain their momentum after losing two of their last three overall. And they find themselves in a foreign land.

"It's not ever going to be the most ideal situation," said safety George Wilson, "because there's such a strong connection between our organization and the people here in Buffalo. So any time you take away one of those eight home games, the local fans really have a hard time giving them up."

The organizers talk about "expanding the footprint" of the franchise in Canada to make it more viable. I've never bought it. Farming out a home game to Toronto will do nothing to ensure the long-term future of the Bills in Buffalo. The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the world. They can't look favorably on a team that can't afford to play all its games in its real home stadium.

Do you really think Jim Kelly's group, or any group interested in buying the team and keeping it in Western New York, will want to pay all that money for the franchise and continue giving away a home game? What's the point, then, if not a short-term cash grab by the current owner?

The only footprint I see is the one on the necks of the players, who worked their tails off from the start of training camp to prove the skeptics wrong. Now, eager to get a win over a mediocre opponent and bolster their position in a jumbled AFC playoff race, their reward is a neutral site game.

Hull passed away last week. There will be a nice tribute at the next home game. It'll likely be next week against the Jets. Ryan Fitzpatrick finally signed a long-term contract extension. Wouldn't it have been nice for fans to welcome him back to the Ralph, where he has given them so many exciting moments this year?

You're right, Senator. I've known Bills home games, and this is no home game. Wilson is normally a diplomatic sort. When he seems so bitter about playing a game here, you know the players must detest it. They're extremely competitive men. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in the NFL.

"I'm not going to say it's a competitive disadvantage," Wilson said, "but it's certainly not a competitive advantage."

They deserve better. That was my sentiment a year ago, when the Toronto game popped up after two consecutive road overtime losses. After a three-point loss to the Bears, Donte Whitner said the home crowd would have made a difference against Chicago's erratic quarterback. It was hard to dispute.

The defense could really use the 12th Man today. Shawne Merriman is done. Kyle Williams is out, and maybe done for the year, too. A rotating cast of average outside linebackers will be trying to generate pressure for the lowest-rated pass rush in the NFL. What they could really use is the 12th Man.

"It's not going to be the Ralph," said inside 'backer Nick Barnett, who will play his first regular-season Toronto game. "It's definitely going to be different. I'm very interested to see what it's going to feel like. I love football. You can throw us out in the parking lot. I'll still play as hard as I can. But the Ralph is the Ralph. Hopefully, they can get that same kind of energy out there."

The underdog Bills have earned some new fans around the U.S. with their inspired start. Maybe some of that will translate to the Canadian crowd. The crowd has been split in previous years. There were at least as many jerseys for the opponents as the Bills. But a Bills team that is perceived as a hot, exciting contender might swing more of the love their way.

This year's Bills should be good enough to rise up and win despite the neutral, conflicted environment. They need this one. They have a tough road ahead. Next week's game with the Jets will be their only true home game in SEVEN WEEKS.

That's another thing that makes the latest Toronto game so regrettable. The Bills don't seem like a home team. What they feel like right now is homeless.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com