The Buffalo Bills' quest to become a longstanding AFC powerhouse begins against an enduring conference stalwart, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Buffalo spent years as a doormat in the AFC, while Pittsburgh is a perennial playoff squad. But, entering 2021, the expectations are flipped, with the Bills expected to contend for a Super Bowl bid while questions surround the Steelers.
Despite changes in the opponent, Bills quarterback Josh Allen knows he's in for a fistfight come Sunday afternoon.
"We know that it's gonna be a tight game," Allen said, via the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "Last couple of years, obviously, they've been kind of boxing matches, taking a couple hits here and there, giving them out. They're extremely well coached, they're a very talented group on defense, they got a Hall of Fame quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) over there so we got to be on top of our game and go out there and try to execute to the best of our abilities."
Allen is 2-0 in his career versus Pittsburgh. Last year, the Bills won 26-15 in Week 14 in Buffalo. In 2019, Allen's team toppled a Big Ben-less Steelers squad 17-10 in Week 15 in Pittsburgh. Previous to that, the Steelers had won six straight matchups from 2001-2016.
"We know they're going to bring it," he said. "Game one and they were extremely good last year, and they're gonna be extremely good this year -- and we know that. Again we gotta go out there and execute."
While the Bills offense brings firepower with Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley, Gabe Davis, Dawson Knox, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, et al., the Steelers defense has question marks littered throughout. First and foremost, will T.J. Watt play (and if so, how much after missing all of camp and preseason)? Will Alex Highsmith shine in a full-time role opposite Watt? How does Devin Bush look coming off injury? How does a modified cornerback crew work out?
One player in the Steelers defense that Allen has no question about is Minkah Fitzpatrick, whom the QB faced against Miami before Fitzpatrick moved to Pittsburgh.
"He's one of those guys that can wreck a game plan," Allen said of Fitzpatrick, who has 13 takeaways since 2019, second-most in the NFL in that span. "We gotta figure it out and figure it out early come game-time. It's always fun playing against guys with that type of caliber and putting yourself against that test."
Allen shined against pressure last season and, even with changes in Pittsburgh, expect him to get heat once again in the opener. Allen was 6-0 against top-10 total defenses in 2020 (including playoffs), the most wins over top-10 defenses by any QB. Allen completed 69.3 percent of his pass attempts with 14 pass TDs, 3 INTs and a 107.6 passer rating in those six wins, per NFL Research.
If the fourth-year QB is to take the next step toward an MVP season, it will begin against a perennially stingy Steelers defense in Week 1.