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Cast adrift by weather, Bills plow ahead

DETROIT – If spoken, the words would be delivered with an eye roll, a groan or maybe a laugh.

In print, quotation marks are necessary.

The Buffalo Bills will play a “home game” against the New York Jets tonight in Ford Field. The game, critical to the Bills’ “playoff chances,” will be considered “sold out” because all the freebie tickets were snatched up.

The past couple of days at the Lions’ practice facility, Bills coaches and players talked about getting back into “a routine” after last week’s historic snowstorms dumped chaos on Western New York.

In reality, the Bills lost a home game. The Jets don’t have to play in conditions Buffalo fans wear as a badge of honor.

So the Jets get to play a neutral-site game, cozily indoors and with additional practice time. The Bills’ previous game was on a Thursday night. They didn’t practice between Nov. 12 and Friday night.

Few football people can imagine what massive disadvantages the Bills have been enduring.

“It’s clearly problematic for the Bills,” Marty Schottenheimer said from his home in Lake Norman, N.C. “I have difficulty imagining this being a holiday. This is something you can’t ignore. You just have to deal with it.”

Schottenheimer coached the San Diego Chargers in 2003, when wildfires made them flee to Arizona State for a game against the Miami Dolphins. The parking lot of San Diego’s stadium was an evacuation site.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, here we go into an environment we’re not familiar with. This is going to be problematic for us,’ ” said Schottenheimer, a former Bills linebacker whose 200 coaching wins rank seventh all-time.

“You’re so much better off when you establish a routine and follow that routine over and over and over again.”

Las Vegas actually favors the Bills to win tonight. They opened as four-point favorites. Once the game was postponed and relocated, it was taken off the board and reset, with the Bills giving as many as 2.5 points.

The Bills beat the Jets by 20 points at the Meadowlands four weeks ago, but both teams have changed significantly since then. The Jets benched struggling quarterback Geno Smith for still-dangerous veteran Michael Vick. The Bills haven’t won again.

The variables the Bills have faced over the last seven days look as insurmountable as those mountains of snow outside the Central Terminal.

“You always try to keep things within the same framework,” Schottenheimer said. “The last thing you want to do is change locations, venues, practice times and the like.”

In the game that was moved to Arizona State, the Chargers were 6.5-point underdogs against the Dolphins. The Chargers, down by 24-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, lost by 16 points.

“The only chance you have to be successful in that kind of environment,” Schottenheimer said, “is to honor the routine as much as possible. Change isn’t good when you’re operating in the NFL.”

Weather adjustments happen in the NFL, most notably in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans Saints from the heavily damaged Superdome. The Saints moved their headquarters to San Antonio and split their games between that city and Louisiana State.

Other hurricane threats that affected NFL games include the Houston Texans in 2008 and the Miami Dolphins a few times, most recently in 2005.

The San Francisco 49ers had to move a game to Stanford University after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake devastated the Bay Area.

The 2010 Minnesota Vikings were besieged with winter-weather modifications.

They had to revise three straight games, the first two because snow caved in the Metrodome’s roof. The collapse detoured the Vikings to Ford Field for their home game against the New York Giants and then to the University of Minnesota to host the Chicago Bears.

Even a road trip couldn’t save the Vikings. A blizzard struck Philadelphia and postponed their game against the Eagles for two days. It was the first time since 1946 the NFL played on a Tuesday.

“On one hand, it was kind of fun being in a snowstorm and not knowing what was going to happen,” said Greg Camarillo, a Vikings receiver and punt returner that season. “On the other side, the uncertainty can add some stress.”

The Bills’ particular circumstances are rare.

Tonight’s game is the first time in more than eight decades the NFL relocated an outdoor game because of snow. The last time was the 1932 championship game between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans.

That game was to be played at Wrigley Field, but snowstorms and subzero temperatures forced the event indoors. The field in Chicago Stadium was only 80 yards long and was 10 yards narrower than regulation width. The arena smelled of manure because the circus had just been there.

The Bills’ lone previous game to get postponed was at the Boston Patriots in October 1961. It was postponed two days over hurricane concerns.

Camarillo took an optimistic approach to the Bills’ situation, especially with it being November. The players have been drilled on the playbook for months.

“As a player, you’re not concerned about missing practices,” Camarillo said. “The coaches are concerned, and the quarterback is more concerned with the timing aspects. But players can get a solid grasp of what they’re supposed to do through walkthroughs, through film.

“Coaches can treat it like a Thursday game and not install a bunch of new plays because you won’t have a chance to practice them. If I’m a coach in that situation, I’m going to stick to the bread and butter that we’ve practiced all year.

“A couple days off shouldn’t affect how that gets executed.”

The 2010 Minnesota blizzard was Camarillo’s first. He’s from Northern California, graduated from Stanford and played his first four NFL seasons with San Diego and Miami.

He recalled sliding around Minneapolis in his rented, front-wheel-drive Chevy Impala. The Vikings already were at their hotel when the Metrodome roof collapsed. So Camarillo had to borrow a teammate’s four-wheel-drive truck to go home and get a suit for Detroit.

The Vikings were 5.5-point underdogs against the Giants in Detroit and lost by 18 in a game that wasn’t even that close.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of background noise,” Camarillo said from his home in San Diego. “People are constantly calling you, trying to find out if you’re doing all right or where the game’s going to be played.

“The biggest distraction is you have family that’s left behind. You’re concerned for how they’re doing. They might be able to get a player out of Buffalo and to the game, but there’s a good chance that family’s still at home and snowed in. You worry, ‘Is my family all right? Do they have enough supplies to make it through?’ That would take away from your focus.”

But, he added, “Once you’re on the field, it doesn’t matter.”

Back to the topic of “routines,” Schottenheimer groused about a decision he made as Cleveland Browns coach at the end of the 1986 season. Without an indoor practice facility then, the Browns practiced at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring-training facility in Vero Beach, Fla.

The move worked for the Browns’ first playoff game, albeit barely. Favored to beat the visiting Jets by seven points, the Browns pulled off one the greatest finishes in NFL history by scoring 10 points in the final two minutes of regulation and won in double overtime.

The next week, the Browns were favored by three points over the Denver Broncos but buckled to John Elway and The Drive.

“At the time it seemed like a good idea,” Schottenheimer said. “Quite candidly, I’m not sure at the end of the day it was the answer.

“People operate most efficiently when there are clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The minute you start getting off that, you lose the focus you need to have on the task at hand. It becomes a distraction.”

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