(Sports Network) - The NFL takes its brand across the border to Canada once again this Sunday, when the Buffalo Bills return to the city of Toronto to take on the Washington Redskins in a battle between teams that are both trying to cope with a string of key injuries.
The Bills will be also vying for their first win at the Rogers Centre since agreeing to play one regular-season home game in Toronto over a five-year span that began in 2008. Buffalo has lost in each of its first three outings at the venue, following up setbacks to fellow AFC East members Miami and the New York Jets over the previous two seasons with last November's 22-19 defeat to Chicago.
Buffalo may have its best chance yet at nabbing a victory in its alternate home this time around, however. At 4-2, the Bills have compiled their best record after six games since 2008 and have assembled one of the highest scoring operations in the league, with the long-struggling team averaging a robust 31.3 points over the course of its strong start.
The Bills also field the NFL's second-leading rusher at the moment in oft- overlooked veteran Fred Jackson, who's averaged a shade over 100 yards a week on the year while scoring a touchdown in five consecutive contests.
Jackson racked up a season-best 121 yards and a score on only 16 carries in Buffalo's 27-24 road loss to the NFC East-leading New York Giants that preceded a Week 7 bye. The Bills' defense allowed 414 total yards on that afternoon, however, marking the fifth straight game an opponent has surpassed the 400-yard mark on the unit.
"We gave up too many big plays, whether it was clutch situations or whether it was just down the field, [we gave up] big plays and you can't do that," said Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey. "And we had some penalties that hurt us on some of those drives and you can't do that, either."
Buffalo's struggling defense could be in for an easier time on Sunday, considering the Redskins will be without several important cogs on the offensive side for this matchup. Leading rusher Tim Hightower was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after tearing his ACL in last week's 33-20 loss at Carolina, while valuable veteran receiver Santana Moss will miss at least a month after fracturing his left hand in the same game.
Washington also put tight end Chris Cooley on IR earlier in the week due to a broken finger and a lingering knee injury, while the offensive line will be minus two starters on Sunday in young left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) and left guard Korey Lichtensteiger (knee, IR).
All those depletions will make for a challenging assignment for John Beck in the quarterback's second start in place of an ineffective Rex Grossman. The Redskins' new field general was adequate but unspectacular in his first extensive NFL action in nearly four years this past Sunday, throwing for 279 yards on 22-of-37 passing with one touchdown and one interception against the Panthers.
"Our goal right now is to get a supporting cast around John that can play at a very high level," Washington head coach Mike Shanahan said. "The better they play, the better he'll play."
The Redskins head to Toronto have dropped two in a row following an encouraging 3-1 record out of the chute. Prior to last week's result, Washington came out on the short end of a 20-13 verdict to visiting Philadelphia on Oct. 16 in which Grossman tossed four interceptions.
Buffalo comes in with a few health concerns as well despite getting a week of rest, with nose tackle Kyle Williams (foot), wide receiver Donald Jones (ankle) and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell (shoulder) all not slated to play. The Bills also placed notoriously brittle outside linebacker Shawne Merriman on IR Tuesday due to an Achilles' issue.
The Bills hold a 7-4 advantage in their overall regular season series with the Redskins and have bested Washington five straight times, with a 17-16 squeaker at FedEx Field in 2007 their most recent win in the set. The Redskins haven't topped Buffalo in a regular-season setting since Dec. 30, 1990, when the Burgundy and Gold came through with a 29-14 decision at RFK Stadium.
Washington did come out on top in the most famous and significant meeting between these teams, however, after ousting the Bills by a 37-24 score in Minneapolis in Super Bowl XXVI to conclude the 1991 season.
Shanahan owns a 5-2 lifetime record against Buffalo as a head coach, with all but one of those encounters coming during his long tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. He also lost to the Bills while in charge of the Oakland Raiders in 1988.
Gailey has never lost in four career clashes with Washington, all of which came during his two-year stint as the Dallas' head coach from 1998-99. He was defeated in his only head-to-head bout with Shanahan to date, though, when the Broncos posted a 42-23 home win over the Cowboys back in 1998.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
With Hightower done for the year, onetime Shanahan favorite Ryan Torain (152 rushing yards, 1 TD) gets another chance to be the featured back for a Washington offense that figures to go run-heavy this week. The oft-injured 25- year-old has shown he can handle the role in the past, having amassed a team- best 742 rushing yards a year ago and accumulating 135 yards and a touchdown on just 19 attempts while filling in for an ailing Hightower in a Week 4 win at St. Louis, but has never been able to consistently stay healthy. Moss' unavailability makes talented tight end Fred Davis (28 receptions, 423 yards, 2 TD) the unquestioned go-to-guy for Beck (396 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) when the longtime backup drops back to pass, with veteran Jabar Gaffney (23 receptions, 1 TD) and speedster Anthony Armstrong (5 receptions, 1 TD) now the primary outside options. The latter averaged nearly 20 yards per catch as a situational deep threat last season, but has been slowed for much of this year by a hamstring injury. Though Beck's intelligence and mobility are viewed as pluses, those assets haven't translated to on-field success, as the fifth-year journeyman is 0-5 as starter for his career and has thrown twice as many interceptions (4) as touchdown passes (2).
The Bills have had one of the NFL's most opportunistic defenses this season, but the group still has given up yards in bunches and lacked a sustained pass rush. Buffalo is permitting an average of 420.5 total yards per game (31st overall) and produced a paltry four sacks in six contests, with the injuries to Merriman and 2010 Pro Bowl honoree Kyle Williams each proving to be difficult to overcome. The team will get veteran linebacker/end Chris Kelsay back from a two-game absence caused by a calf strain this weekend, which should aid a secondary that's been burned for nearly 285 passing yards per game (30th overall) on the year. The Bills have come up with 12 interceptions -- the second-highest total in the league -- however, and taken three of those picks back for touchdowns. Strong safety George Wilson (57 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD) leads the team in interceptions as well as in tackles, an indicator that Buffalo has also had problems stopping the run. Opponents are averaging a hefty 5.1 yards per carry on the defense, the fourth-highest number in the NFL, as well as 135.7 rushing yards per game (30th overall).
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A solid Buffalo offense has leaned heavily on the contributions of Jackson (601 rushing yards, 6 TD, 24 receptions) as both a runner and receiver, and there's little reason not to suggest that won't be the case again this week. The versatile 30-year-old is second in the league in yards from scrimmage (146.7 ypg) and is averaging nearly six yards per carry, while providing a reliable pass-catching outlet for steady quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1477 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT) as well. The latter is also in the midst of a career year, having completed better than 66 percent of his throws thus far in 2011, and has received excellent protection from a no-name crew of offensive linemen that have yielded a mere six sacks through the first six games. Wide receivers Stevie Johnson (33 receptions, 382 yards, 4 TD) and David Nelson (27 receptions, 2 TD) give Fitzpatrick a pair of capable downfield targets, while Gailey has been deploying 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller (107 rushing yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions) out wide in recent games in an effort to take advantage of the dangerous running back's big-play potential. The Bills have scored at least 20 points in every game this season and are fourth overall in rushing offense, averaging an impressive 141 yards per game on the ground.
While the Redskins have been beaten up on offense, a defense that was a prime reason for the club's 3-1 start hasn't beaten nearly as stout during its current skid. Washington allowed 422 and 407 total yards, respectively, in losses to Philadelphia and Carolina following a bye, with those two foes combining for a startling 367 rushing yards over those games. Injuries have had an effect on this side of the ball as well, with iron man inside linebacker and former Bill London Fletcher (43 tackles, 0.5 sacks) in danger of missing the first game of his distinguished 14-year career after tweaking his hamstring against the Panthers and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (25 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) sitting out last Sunday's loss with a knee problem. The team is hopeful both will be ready to go this week. If the Redskins are able to keep Buffalo's potent ground game in check, Fitzpatrick won't have it easy against a secondary that's surrendered just five touchdown passes on the year and possesses two playmaking cornerbacks in DeAngelo Hall (31 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Josh Wilson (27 tackles, 5 PD). The duo is backed by a very good pass rush that's generated 21 sacks, tied for tops in the league, and contains one of the game's elite pressure creators in standout outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (21 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Defensive end Adam Carriker (10 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has also made an impact in that department, as has promising rookie Ryan Kerrigan (24 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) opposite Orakpo.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. A critical element to Buffalo's early-season success has been the defense's ability to force mistakes out of the opposition. In their two signature wins over New England and Philadelphia, the Bills intercepted Tom Brady and Michael Vick four times each, and the team leads the AFC with a plus- nine turnover margin. Buffalo can get into trouble when it's not effective in this aspect, however, as evidenced by the zero takeaways in had in its loss to the Giants two weeks back. Washington, meanwhile, has committed seven giveaways during its two-game slide and isn't good enough offensively to compensate being error-prone.
The Redskins' defense needs to get back to the stifling form it displayed over the season's first few weeks, particularly against the run. Washington has allowed an average of 71 rushing yards in its three wins and 164 in its trio of defeats.
The pass rush. Buffalo's done a remarkably good job of protecting Fitzpatrick this season, but the only time the line faced a front the caliber of Washington's was two weeks ago, when the Giants sacked Fitzpatrick three times and intercepted him twice. While the Bills' attempts to pressure the quarterback have been usually futile, keep in mind that Beck's taken an alarming 14 sacks in 159 pass attempts over his nomadic career.
Having been hit hard by injuries at the skill positions and sending out a quarterback who's yet to win an NFL game in five seasons, the Redskins may have to rely on a defense that's been sturdy at times but struggled on other occasions. As previously pointed out, Washington has won whenever it's been able to keep the opponent's running game in check, but that's no small feat against a Buffalo squad that's shown it can consistently churn out yards on the ground. The week off could also enable the always-creative Gailey to work in a few new wrinkles that may keep the Redskins off guard, and if that's the case, Washington's battered offense might not be able to keep up. For the first time since the Toronto Series was instituted, the Rogers Centre may actually feel like home for the Bills.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 30, Redskins 21