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Observations on the Bills' 2021 schedule, with upsides, downsides and over-unders

Observations on the Bills' 2021 schedule, with upsides, downsides and over-unders

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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) scrambles during the fourth quarter at Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020.

The great thing about the NFL schedule in this new era of Buffalo Bills football is fans finally can look at the list of games from a position of strength.

It’s not a question of how might we catch a break and get lucky? Which games might the opponent be looking past us? Who do we have the “rest advantage” on?

It’s whose big night at home are we going to spoil? Which road games can we travel to in order to see a butt-whipping by the Bills?

That’s the way it was in the Super Bowl era. The Bills were 11-4 in prime time from 1990 to 1993.

Just like the days when the Bills had Jim Kelly, the single most important question in assessing the schedule is: How many games do the Bills have the advantage at quarterback?

Call it 15 out of 17. Only for the road games at Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes and Tampa Bay with Tom Brady can we say that Josh Allen isn’t clearly the best QB on the field.

With that in mind, let’s over-analyze the schedule:

Upsides

1. It’s always good to open the season at home, and it’s against a good team, but not a great team, in Pittsburgh. I’m down on the Steelers this year. Ben Roethlisberger is 39. The offensive line still is not dominant. The defense is great.

2. The Bills get an extra home game because of the 17th game vs. Washington. Furthermore, the extra game is against the weakest division winner in the NFC. Meanwhile, New England has a tougher “extra game” against Dallas. And several top AFC rivals have more difficult NFC crossovers, including the Colts (Tampa), Chiefs (Packers) and Ravens (Rams). However, the WFT isn’t an “easy out.” They have one of the best five front-fours in the NFL. And it’s a “trap game,” because it comes after the showdown in Miami.

3. The Bills get Houston in Week 4, meaning Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson may not be playing due to an NFL suspension. It could be old friend Tyrod Taylor back in Orchard Park.

4. The Bills get the “rest advantage” in two games. They get two weeks to prepare for the home game vs. Miami, and the Bills get 11 days to prepare for Patriots at home in Week 12. Rookie Mac Jones will have replaced Cam Newton as Pats’ the starting QB by then.

5. Atlanta, a dome team, comes to Orchard Park on Jan. 2. The Falcons will be out of it.

6. The Bills get the Jets in the regular-season finale. The Jets will be out of it. It also will be the Jets’ 12th game in 12 weeks, because they opted to take their bye in Week 6 after their London trip. The Jets will be on fumes. The odds are, the Bills will need the win for playoff seeding (even though they didn’t need it last season).

7. The Bills don’t have to travel to London to play the Jaguars. Miami gets that game.

Downsides

8. The Bills have a “rest disadvantage” in four games. Washington plays Thursday night the week before coming to Buffalo, and so does Houston. Washington should be tough; Houston should be a tire fire. The Jets play Thursday before hosting the Bills in Week 10. The Bills have to go to Tampa on a short week after a Monday nighter at home against the Pats.

9. Miami will have the motivation edge in its home opener against the Bills in Week 2 after being humiliated in Buffalo 56-26 in Week 17 last year.

10. The Bills have to go to New Orleans on a short week. Road teams have a 38.7% win rate since 2006 on Thursday games, according to Sharp Football. Of course, the Bills bucked that trend by blowing out the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 2019. The Saints’ starting lineup – 1 to 22 – arguably is as good as Buffalo’s. The Saints are loaded on both lines of scrimmage. Their defensive backs are great. I like playing the Saints later in the year, however. I don’t have great faith in either of their quarterbacks – Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston. Hopefully by that point both of them have demonstrated their shortcomings.

11. Weeks 11 to 14 are a tough four-game stretch. Indianapolis at home, at the Saints, New England at home, at Tampa Bay.

Rankings.

Judging the schedule by the records compiled last season isn’t very helpful because teams change a lot year to year. A much better barometer is judging it by the Las Vegas handicappers’ over-under win totals for each team.

By that measure, the Bills’ schedule is eighth easiest in the NFL (or 26th toughest), because the 17 foes have a combined expected win total of 142.5.

• Easiest schedules (with the foes’ expected wins): San Francisco (137.5), Carolina (140.5), Tampa Bay (141), Denver (141).

• Hardest schedules: Las Vegas (153.5), Pittsburgh (153), Houston (152), Cincinnati (151), Detroit (150).

Calling it eighth easiest is a little misleading because there isn’t a big difference in win totals for all the teams in the middle of the pack. But it’s not one of the harder schedules.

Vegas puts the Bills’ win total at 10.5.

What else do the Vegas win lines say about the 2021 schedule?

The toughest division in the league is the NFC West. Second toughest is the AFC West, followed by the AFC North. The AFC East and NFC South both are tied, close behind.

The weakest divisions are the NFC East and AFC South, followed by the NFC North. The AFC South is weak because its two bottom teams (Jacksonville and Houston) are so bad.

Over-unders.

• Pittsburgh’s win number is 8.5. I like the under. Cleveland is better than last year and Baltimore is loaded again.

• I love the under on Jacksonville at 6.5. The Jaguars have a new coach and a rookie quarterback. They get the NFC West (that’s 0-4), the AFC East (that’s 1-3 at best) and they’ve got four automatic Ls in division. Then they have Atlatna, Denver and Cincinnati. No way the Jaguars win more than five.

• I like San Francisco over 10.5. The Niners are loaded but had the most injuries in the NFL last year. Win four in division, three vs. the NFC North, two vs. the AFC South and three vs. the Bengals, Falcons and Eagles. That's 12.

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Bills/NFL writer

Mark Gaughan is in his 37th year at The Buffalo News. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for 12 years.

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