By John Wawrow
ORCHARD PARK —
Newly signed Buffalo Bills defensive Mario Williams’ homecoming in Houston is set. And, as it turns out, former Bills running back Marshawn Lynch will be making his return in Toronto — not Orchard Park — this season.
Those are among the key games to circle on the Bills’ regular-season schedule released by the NFL on Tuesday.
Williams, who signed a six-year, $100 million contract with Buffalo last month, will travel to play his former team, the Houston Texans, on Nov. 4. And Lynch will be joining the Seattle Seahawks in a trip north of the border on Dec. 16, for Buffalo’s annual “home” game in Toronto.
Buffalo’s schedule is bookended by games against AFC East rival New York Jets — the Bills open at the Meadowlands on Sept. 9, and close at Buffalo on Dec. 30. The Bills’ home opener will be against Kansas City on Sept. 16, and they are set to play one prime-time outing, hosting Miami on Thursday, Nov. 15.
It’s a schedule that’s particularly heavy on travel in the beginning. Buffalo will be on the road to play seven of its first 11 games. That includes consecutive games out west — at San Francisco on Oct. 7 and Arizona on Oct. 14.
As a result, the Bills will close the season playing four of their final five at home, all in December, including their game against Toronto.
This marks the second straight season that a bulk of Buffalo’s home games will come in the second half. That’s cause for concern because the team has traditionally had difficulty attracting fans to Ralph Wilson Stadium once the weather turns cold.
The Bills failed to sell out their final three home games last year, all of them in December.
Buffalo is coming off a free-spending offseason in which it added defensive ends Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency, and re-signed receiver Stevie Johnson. The additions have raised expectations for a team that’s coming off a 6-10 finish and has missed the playoffs for 12 straight years — the NFL’s longest active drought.
Buffalo’s bye comes on Oct. 28, Week 8 of the NFL season.
The game against the Seahawks will mark Lynch’s return after Buffalo’s 2007 first-round draft pick spent his first three-plus seasons with the Bills before being traded to Seattle.
The game at Toronto will be the fifth and final of a five-year series the Bills reached with Rogers Communications to play in Canada’s largest city and financial capital. The Bills are 1-3 in regular-season games played north of the border after a 23-0 win over Washington last year.
The Bills were supposed to play a preseason game at Toronto this summer, but that game has since been moved back to Orchard Park because of a scheduling conflict. That conflict proved to be a Bruce Springsteen concert announced last week and set for Aug. 24 — the third week of the preseason schedule when the Bills were scheduled to play in Toronto.
The Bills and Rogers have both expressed optimism that an agreement will be reached to extend the series for another five years, and once again feature five regular-season and three preseason games.