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Falcons face Bills in comfort at dome in Toronto

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The Canadian Press
11/29/2013 5:34:46 PM
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TORONTO -- A December road game against the Buffalo Bills has never shaped up so well for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons face the Bills on Sunday at Rogers Centre, meaning Ryan and Co. won't have to deal with the wind, rain and snow being forecast for Buffalo's home venue, Ralph Wilson Stadium, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

It will be Buffalo's sixth regular-season "home" game in Ontario as part of the Bills Toronto Series, which began in 2008 and was renewed in January for another five years. The Bills (4-7) are 1-4 at Rogers Centre and 0-3 in December contests there.

What's more, Atlanta (2-9) plays its home games in a dome.

"I think obviously playing in a dome this time of year late in the year that's an advantage for both offences," Ryan said. "It can be difficult to go out there and play when it's windy and cold and you're either getting hail or snow . . . so I think both offences, it cuts you a little bit of a break."

But once again receiver Stevie Johnson and his Buffalo teammates must deal with the disadvantage of being the home team indoors in a different country.

"Yeah, they must have fixed the schedule or something out there in Atlanta," Johnson said. "Who put the schedule together to have them come to Toronto?"

Buffalo's roster features two Canadians: rookie defensive lineman Stefan Charles, a Toronto native who grew up in Oshawa, Ont., and veteran linebacker Jamaal Westerman, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in Brampton, Ont. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff grew up in Guelph, Ont., and played at the University of Guelph.

Charles, claimed last month off Tennessee's practice roster, could see more playing time Sunday as defensive tackle Kyle Williams (back) is questionable. Williams, 30, has a career-high seven sacks and 48 tackles this season.

The Bills Toronto Series was unveiled in 2008 as event organizers wanted to show Toronto was a viable NFL city. Rogers Communications Inc. paid US$78 million to stage eight games -- five regular season, three exhibition -- expecting southern Ontario fans to flock to Rogers Centre.

But a slow economy, high-priced tickets -- initially averaging over $180 each, compared to roughly US$51 at Orchard Park -- and struggling Bills teams have made it a tough sell. Last year, a series-low 40,770 spectators watched Seattle dismantle Buffalo 50-17.

Some ticket prices were reduced to make games more affordable but that hasn't resulted in a sellout. The average ticket price last year was roughly $99.

Greg Albrecht, in his second year as the executive director of the Bills in Toronto Series, expects a crowd of about 40,770 on Sunday. But with events planned for the entire weekend, a pre-game show featuring "some surprises from the Department of National Defence," and a half-time performance by The Beach Boys, Albrecht said this has become much more than just a football game.

"That is absolutely my goal, to make this the preeminent NFL experience in Canada," he said.

The series has been good financially for the Bills as the original deal more than doubled what they would've made holding the games at Orchard Park. It has also allowed the NFL club to establish a foothold in Canada's biggest market.

But the Bills lose their huge home-field advantage playing late-season games in cold, blustery Orchard Park. Also, fans at Rogers Centre cheer as much -- or more -- for Buffalo's opponents as they do the home team.

However, Albrecht has a plan to help remedy that.

"We're looking for the craziest fans when the Bills are on defence," Albrecht said. "Four of those fans, one per quarter, will be picked and prior to the end of the game we're going to do a contest, basically an on-field event, and the two winners will be flown to Barbados for a week with their family.

"It's a pretty high-end prize but it's just an incentive to get people to really start making a lot of noise and creating that crazy NFL fan experience here in Toronto."

The series has also created much speculation regarding the Bills' potential relocation to Toronto after owner Ralph Wilson, 95, passes away. Such talk gained more steam last week amid reports that rocker Jon Bon Jovi has aligned himself with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- which owns the NHL's Maple Leafs and NBA's Raptors -- to purchase the Bills and move them to southern Ontario.

"In my view, this is something we're building to create more NFL awareness as well as build up the Bills' fanbase and celebrate the NFL in Canada," Albrecht said. "The future of the team, who owns it and where it goes is a little bit beyond my purview.

"I'm here to make sure we're doing what we can from a corporate partnership base, from a fanbase and make this the best NFL event that we can make."

But that hasn't stopped some Bills players from criticizing the series. Centre Eric Woods blasted the Rogers Centre after last year's contest.

"I think that Toronto series has turned into pretty much a joke," Wood told a Buffalo radio station. "It's a bad atmosphere for football. I mean, nobody wants to play there.

"I guess for opposing teams it beats the hell out of going in somebody else's stadium and dealing with a bunch of crowd noise. I don't think it's turned out the way we wanted, and I hope we don't renew it. That sucked."

Woods was signing a different tune this week.

"I kind of said that in the heat of the moment after the game last year, and I'm looking forward to it," he said. "Hopefully my feelings will change after this game."

Buffalo rookie head coach Doug Marrone said the Bills could make Rogers Centre an inhospitable environment for opponents by playing better there and giving Toronto fans more to cheer about.

"I think we do have some fans in Toronto and I think if we play well we'll create more fans," he said. "I think we can over a period of time, with success, really create that type of advantage for us over there."

Still, Ryan is preparing for the worse at Rogers Centre.

"We'll anticipate going into it where it's going to be really loud and difficult for us to communicate, and then obviously adjust if it's different," he said. "But I'm hoping we've got a bunch of supporters up in Toronto and they show up this weekend and are pulling for us."

Buffalo Bills in Toronto (Photo: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
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