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NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-9) at Buffalo (4-7)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Buffalo will return from its bye week to host the fading Atlanta Falcons in its not so comfortable home away from home, Toronto's Rogers Centre.
This week's contest will mark the sixth regular season affair the Bills will have played north of the border since 2008 and Rogers Media along with the club recently announced a five-year partnership renewal, beginning with this game and continuing through the 2017 season.
Problem is Buffalo hasn't been all that successful when crossing over into Ontario. In their five previous "homes games" in Rob Ford's city, the Bills are just 1-4 with the lone win coming in 2011 when they blanked Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins 23-0.
Buffalo lost consecutive games to Miami, the New York Jets and Chicago in Toronto between 2008-10 before gaining the victory and then suffering through its worst Rogers Centre performance in 2012, a 50-17 collapse against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Bills are coming off one of their most impressive 2013 performances back in Week 11 when the club snapped a three-game losing streak with an emphatic 37-14 victory on a windy day in western New York at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel won his second duel with New York freshman Geno Smith in that one, bouncing back from a 27-20 defeat in Week 3 at MetLife Stadium when Manuel completed only 19-of-42 passes and Smith threw for 331 yards with a pair of scores.
This time, Manuel connected on 20-of-28 throws for 245 yards with a pair of long touchdown passes into the wind for Buffalo, while Smith completed just 8- of-23 passes for only 103 yards and was intercepted three times.
"It was a physical game, we took advantage of some opportunities, thought (Manuel) played well," said Bills coach Doug Marrone.
Jairus Byrd came away with two of Smith's picks and Da'Norris Searcy returned one 32 yards for a touchdown. Smith, who was benched in the fourth quarter, was also sacked four times and lost a fumble deep in his own territory that set up another Buffalo touchdown.
"You got to give all the credit to Buffalo. They did a tremendous job, outplayed us in every phase of the game," said Jets coach Rex Ryan.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are in the middle of a nightmare. After finishing 13-3 in 2012 and coming up just short in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, Atlanta fell to 2-9 in Week 12 after a hard-fought 17-13 loss to New Orleans at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta has dropped five straight overall and is now tied with Houston and Jacksonville for the worst record in the NFL at 2-9.
Quarterback Matt Ryan played well against NOLA, finishing 30-of-39 for 292 yards, while Steven Jackson racked up 63 yards on 16 carries and scored the Falcons' lone touchdown in the loss.
Sunday's game will mark the 11th regular season meeting between Buffalo and Atlanta, with the Falcons holding a slim 6-4 advantage in the series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Buffalo has played some poor football in Toronto, committing at least two turnovers in every game there and compiling a dreadful minus-9 turnover differential over the five games played at Rogers Centre.
The commitment to keep a Toronto game on the schedule through 2017 means the Bills need to figure it out here and getting the running game going is paramount.
Buffalo has a real solid two-back rotation and has averaged 134.1 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Fred Jackson has run for 591 yards on 141 carries with six touchdowns, and the explosive CJ Spiller (507 yards on 123 carries) is always dangerous despite being in the middle of a down year.
Manuel, who needs three TD passes to pass Dennis Shaw (10 in 1970) for the most by a rookie in Bills franchise history, can also hurt you with his legs so a banged-up Atlanta defense must wrap-up while tackling and play gap- disciplined football.
Falcons undrafted rookie middle linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a pleasant surprise in a dismal season and has proven to be a tackling machine since being inserted in the starting lineup. Like many young players, though, he is susceptible to taking false steps and getting caught up in the wash between the tackles.
Offensively, Atlanta has been among the NFL's top teams in terms of sustaining long scoring drives this season. The Falcons have posted a league-high 26 drives lasting 10 plays or longer, scoring 19 times for 89 points, a testament to Ryan, who is still playing at a very high level despite the lack of Ws on the Falcons' slate.
Atlanta hasn't been nearly as explosive, however, due to injuries to star wideouts Julio Jones, who is done for the year with a foot problem and Roddy White, who missed three games with hamstring and ankle injuries, along with a plethora of problems along the offensive line.
The Bills, on the other hand, have some real playmakers in the back seven including potential Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso at MLB and Byrd, a Pro Bowl caliber talent rounding into form after injuries and a lengthy contract dispute.
Manuel is looking to keep Buffalo's slim postseason hopes alive and cure its north of the border-ills while Atlanta is trying to stop a free-fall which has resulted in the five straight setbacks.
Figure the Bills to find a way late as another loss would only enhance the Falcons' position in next May's draft.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 21, Falcons 18
11/28 11:31:45 ET