In just a few days, the Steelers will touch down in Buffalo, New York, pass a sea of broken tables and men doused in ketchup and mustard and enter Highmark Stadium to the tune of blue and red boos.
Every year, Week 1 presents a grand dichotomy: the optimism of a fresh slate and a new start to the sport that brings us such pure joy, yet also a feeling of guttural, seemingly permanent sadness if our favorite team loses.
Simply put, there’s a lot riding on Week 1 every season. Teams want to set the tone for the forthcoming year, rookies are looking to shine in their professional debuts and experts are hoping their predictions will come true (from my own experience, this often isn’t the case).
That mantra certainly applies to the Steelers’ initial game in 2021.
There’s no better place to start than with the man under center. Could this be the beginning of Ben Roethlisberger’s farewell tour? Will #7 silence his critics and put on a dazzling display or feed more chum to the circling sharks biting from all angles?
Further, all eyes will be on rookie workhorse Najee Harris in his first regular-season matchup; the same applies for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, recently acquired linebacker Joe Schobert and newly minted starting punter Pressley Harvin III.
After reading all of these storylines, your excitement—and anxiety—probably skyrocketed as you could even feel the black and gold rushing through your veins.
In spite of the buzz, I’m here to tell you that the Steelers’ Week 1 game vs. the Bills isn’t necessarily as paramount as many think.
Let’s begin with the obvious: the Bills aren’t just a good team—they’re a stupendous team. After a solid 2019 season that ended with a Wild Card loss to the Texans (boy, that sounds strange now), Buffalo grew exponentially in Sean McDermott’s fourth year, posting a 13-3 record and making it all the way to the AFC Championship.
The recipe for the Bills’ success is no secret. Fundamentally, Josh Allen made one of the biggest leaps for a young quarterback in NFL history, transitioning from a questionable starter to a premier gunslinger in football. On top of that, Stefon Diggs absolutely flourished with Allen as his QB, tallying new career highs in targets (166), receptions (127), yards (1,535) and catch percentage (76.5%).
It’s not only Allen and Diggs, though. Buffalo possesses a good receiving corps in Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie as well as a standout defense that finished 12th in overall DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
In other words, when the Steelers battle with the Bills, they’ll be facing one of the best teams in the entire league—and, simply, a unit that’s in a class above them. Few even travel to Buffalo and have a fighting chance, as the Bills lost just one game at home a year ago.
Aside from the talent differential between the Steelers and the Bills, another key factor to consider is the zaniness of Week 1.
I alluded to it earlier, but one element of Week 1—and the entire NFL—that never fails to amaze me is the unpredictability of outcomes. Subsequent to the preseason, fans and analysts alike feel that they have a sound understanding of teams, their depth and how they project—all for it to be triturated by a score out of left field.
In terms of last September, look towards the Jaguars beating the Colts to begin the year; Indianapolis was an eight-point favorite yet handed Jacksonville its only win of the season. More broadly, games such as Cardinals-49ers (2020; 49ers were -7.0), Titans-Browns (2019) and Packers-Bears (2019) all demonstrate the oddities that Week 1 brings.
It should also be noted that certain squads eventually accomplish their goals despite a gut punch right after their first kickoff. Just ask Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, as Brady did little to mitigate concerns about leaving New England en route to a 34-23 loss to the Saints—all before winning a ring just four months later.
In recent years, the Steelers have actually performed solidly during Week 1, going 3-1-1 since 2016. But in classic Mike Tomlin fashion, there also have been some unquestionable clunkers, such as 2018—tying with the Tyrod Taylor-led Browns—and 2019—posting just three points and getting manhandled by the Patriots.
Under this theory of craziness, it may actually seem more likely that the Steelers could shock the world and leave Buffalo with a victory. Stranger things than that have happened, especially since Pittsburgh appears to be a playoff contender once again.
However, the most rational and objective expectation that Steelers fans should have is for Tomlin & Co. to begin this season 0-1—and that’s not necessarily a concern.
One thing I’m not proclaiming is to throw away all results and plays from this game. If the Steelers get absolutely blown out or Player X looks abominable, those elements need to be dissected and are certainly applicable for the rest of the season.
All in all, my prognostication for this contest doesn’t portend well for the Steelers given the Bills’ receiver talent lined up against the Pittsburgh’s somewhat shaky secondary. Also, the Bills are 2-0 against the Steelers under Josh Allen, and both victories were impressive.
Could the Steelers upend the Bills as underdogs? Absolutely. But no matter the overreactions and proclamations made after Week 1, remember that this isn’t the Steelers’ Super Bowl—losing in Buffalo may not tell us much, if anything.