New Era Field has hosted a pair of preseason games and two big-time rock concerts in recent weeks.
While those are nice appetizers, the main course comes Sunday when the Buffalo Bills open the regular season against the New York Jets.
"There's nothing like opening day in Buffalo for a Bills game," said Andy Major, the team's vice president of operations and guest experience.
To put it simply, Major is in charge of making sure fans who visit New Era Field have an enjoyable experience – at least until kickoff, when the team takes over that responsibility. As part of that, the Bills will unveil some new attractions for fans. The first of those is along the closed stretch of Abbott Road, and is dubbed the "Billevard." The stretch will include a beer garden (entrance is restricted to those 21 and up), food trucks, live entertainment including a DJ and various other games and activities. The area will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"It's great on the west side of the stadium, for the fans, and to help with the fan experience," Major said. "We've always had the field house ... but that's on the south side of the stadium, so a lot of fans that are out in the parking lots across from Abbott or on the north side of the stadium, they'd have to come all the way to the field house to go to that fan experience area. This gives us another element for the fans to enjoy pregame."
The Bills have also revamped fan activities inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center. What used be called "Club Buffalo Bills" has been renamed the "Fan Zone."
"Obviously weather protected if fans want that," Major said. "That's a little bit different. That's more family oriented and technology oriented."
A "media zone" will include virtual-reality activities, including the creation of a bobblehead of themselves. There will also be a "combine drill" section inside the field house, where fans can have their 40-yard dash timed.
Inside the stadium, the Bills have constructed a stage for "The Billievers," a band that had previously performed between gates 2 and 3.
"This year we built a stage for them because fans really liked them and we want to make it a little more centralized to the west-end plaza," major said. "There's a stage right underneath the scoreboard, right in the middle of the west end zone, up in the concourse area where the team store is. So when fans come in, there's Dinosaur BBQ, there's all the food and beverage options. ... It's a cool place for fans to hang out before the game before they go to their seats."
Major, who has been with the Bills for 10 years and is in his sixth season in his current role, also said the team's wifi has improved in the third year of being available. Lastly, DJ Milk will be on the Bills' sideline prior to the start of pregame activities.
"We're going to provide a clean venue and a comfortable venue," he said. "That's our goal. We want to make it a fun place for fans to come."
Picking the Bills
Here it is – the definitive game-by-game projection of how the Bills will arrive at a record of ... (drum roll) ... 6-10 in 2017.
• Week One: Bills 24, Jets 13. It’s not “Tank Bowl,” as some have called it, because I don’t believe the Bills are tanking. If they manage to lose to the Jets, however, they probably should. The Sean McDermott Era couldn’t have a better game to start, as the Jets promise to be woeful in 2017, rolling out 38-year-old Josh McCown as their starting quarterback. While both teams are clearly rebuilding, the Jets stripped things down to the studs, while the Bills put on a fresh coat of painted and rearranged the furniture. Record: 1-0.
• Week Two: Panthers 23, Bills 17. Homecoming for Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott should be special. McDermott should draw up a good game plan against his former team, but the Panthers have more talent and pull out a close game in their home opener. 1-1.
• Week Three: Bills 27, Broncos 20. Prediction – Denver stinks this year. The AFC West looks tough, and losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will hurt. Similar to Week Two with McDermott against the Panthers, Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison should have a good plan to attack his old team’s defense. Von Miller will be a handful, but the Bills’ defense shouldn’t be scared by Trevor Siemian. 2-1.
• Week Four: Falcons 38, Bills 13. This one could get ugly. The defending NFC champs are loaded again. Even though Buffalo’s defense should be improved in 2017, this is a tough ask. McDermott does have a good knowledge of Matt Ryan having seen him twice a year, but Atlanta’s offensive weapons are overwhelming. 2-2.
• Week Five: Bengals 24, Bills 20. If the Bills plan on being “in the hunt” this year, this is a game that they need. If the window was ever really open for the Bengals, it feels like it’s closing now. However, if A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert stay healthy, quarterback Andy Dalton has talented options to throw to in the passing game. The Bengals’ three-headed monster at running back will also test the Buffalo defense. 2-3.
• Week Six: Bye.
• Week Seven: Buccaneers 28, Bills 24. Jameis Winston and Co. are chic picks for a playoff spot in the NFC. With a loaded offense that included Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, that’s understandable. This will be just the second time in team history Tampa Bay visits the Bills. Buffalo will be well rested coming out of the bye, but falls just short. 2-4.
• Week Eight: Raiders 31, Bills 13. Homecoming for Khalil Mack could make for a long afternoon for Tyrod Taylor. Another expected playoff contender, the Raiders have handed the Bills a couple soul-crushing losses in recent seasons. Oakland has the benefit of extra rest having played on Thursday night in Week Seven. What kind of reaction will Marshawn Lynch get in his return to Buffalo? 2-5.
• Week Nine: Bills 27, Jets 16. Ok, so this might be Tank Bowl. If the Bills come in at 2-5, as projected, plenty of talk will center around the quarterbacks in the 2018 draft. Buffalo pushes the Jets closer to one of them with a win. 3-5.
• Week 10: Bills 34, Saints 28. Second prediction – The Saints will stink again, yet Sean Payton will strangely avoid any blame for that. New Orleans’ defense always seems like Rob Ryan is in charge, no matter who is calling the shots. The Bills will need to stay healthy up until this point to match points with Drew Brees, but New Orleans isn’t a good road team, so this is possible. 4-5.
• Week 11: Chargers 27, Bills 17. The Anthony Lynn Revenge Bowl goes to my sleeper AFC team. Philip Rivers remains one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. The cross-country trip isn’t easy – the Bills went 1-2 on such journeys last year. 4-6.
• Week 12: Chiefs 25, Bills 10. Kansas City suffered a major loss Thursday night when safety Eric Berry tore his Achilles, but they were nonetheless massively impressive in defeating the Patriots on the road. Alex Smith won’t play like the second coming of Joe Montana every week, but the Chiefs look like a legit playoff contender after Week One. 4-7.
• Week 13: Patriots 38, Bills 13. Don’t overreact to one New England loss. They Patriots will still waltz to an AFC East title. 4-8.
• Week 14: Bills 31, Colts 17. Indianapolis has managed to do the seemingly impossible – screw up having a franchise quarterback. Andrew Luck isn’t healthy, and there’s no telling when he will be. If he’s right for this game, it projects to be closer. But for now this looks like a win. 5-8.
•Week 15: Bills 24, Dolphins 16. A personal rule of thumb: Pick against the Dolphins when they have to visit Orchard Park in December. It didn’t work last year (thanks, Rex!), but it’s never a bad idea. 6-8.
• Week 16: Patriots 27, Bills 20. The annual “Bills play New England close but still lose game” comes in the second matchup this time. The hope for Buffalo is that the Patriots have everything wrapped up by now and thus sit their starters, but the thinking is home-field advantage might still be on the line. With that being the case, the Pats are the pick. 6-9.
• Week 17: Dolphins 23, Bills 10. We could be well into the Nathan Peterman era by now. A trip to South Beach for a game on New Year’s Eve just might lead to, shall we say, a lack of focus for a team that will miss out on the playoffs for an 18th straight season. 6-10.
Stat of the week
ESPN’s Mike Rodak wrote a good column this week examining what, exactly, the Bills’ plan is for the 2017 season, including whether the team is indeed “tanking” for a better draft pick.
In it, Rodak pointed out that the Bills’ 22 projected starters have an average age of 27.59, the fourth oldest in the NFL ahead of only the Cardinals (28.23), Ravens (28.00) and Patriots (27.82).
That’s bizarre for a team that is rebuilding. The Bills have the 10th-oldest projecting starting offense at 27.45 years, according to Rodak, and the sixth-oldest defense, at 27.33.
“Sometimes I think the Patriots have better Buffalo players than Buffalo has.” – NBC’s Al Michaels, punching Bills fans in the stomach while calling Thursday night’s game between New England and Kansas City
Michaels made his comment after a carry by Mike Gillislee, one of four former Bills on the Patriots. Gillislee scored three touchdowns Thursday, but Bills fans could at least take some solace in the Chiefs’ comeback win.