DETROIT — Mother Nature is forcing the Buffalo Bills to shuffle off to the Motor City.
The NFL decided Thursday to shift the Bills' home game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to Detroit’s Ford Field because of travel and safety concerns stemming from a lake-effect snowstorm set to hit the Buffalo region.
The move to relocate the game came before the storm even began. The forecast calls for 1 to 3 feet of snow to fall through the weekend. The switch in sites means the Bills will play back-to-back games in Detroit, one as the home team and then as visitors when they face the Lions on Thanksgiving.
To maintain continuity, Bills general manager Brandon Beane said the team has chosen to use the visitors' locker room, sideline and coaching booths for both trips.
“It’s the home team’s choice, really, and we’re the home team,” Beane said during a Zoom call. “The only thing we want from the home-team standpoint this week is the fans.”
Beane then cracked a joke when asked about the price of tickets, which will go on sale Friday.
“They’re much less expensive,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “unless you’re a Cleveland Browns fan.”
The Bills (6-3) have lost two straight and will now play 10 “road” games — instead of nine — in the second year of the NFL's 17-game schedule. The Browns (3-6) have lost four of five.
Two teams that share a wintry climate and a Lake Erie shoreline will instead play indoors after the NFL — with input from the Bills and New York state officials — was left with little choice but to shift the game.
The National Weather Service issued a lake-effect storm warning lasting through Saturday morning for southern Erie County, which includes the Bills' home in Orchard Park. The storm is projected to bring wind gusts off Lake Erie as high as 35 mph, which would make travel conditions hazardous and lead to potential power outages.
Though Sunday’s forecast calls for light snow and gusting winds — playable conditions — the Bills and safety officials made clear to the NFL they didn’t want to draw resources away from what’s expected to be a major cleanup effort.
“At the end of the day, the safety of this community comes first, not playing a football game,” said Ron Raccuia, executive vice president of the Bills' parent company, Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
This isn’t the first time weather has forced the Bills to relocate to Detroit.
Another snowstorm led to them making a similar trip to Ford Field in November 2014, when the Bills defeated the New York Jets 38-3. That game was also pushed back a day to accommodate travel for both teams. The Bills arranged for snowmobiles to pick up some players who were unable to dig their cars out of the snow in order to get them to the airport.
This time, the NFL couldn't push back the date of the game because Buffalo is already facing a short week.
The Bills plan to make the 45-minute flight to Detroit on Saturday, as they would on a normal trip, and return home immediately after the game.
The Browns also plan to travel on Saturday, and prepared for the possibility of a venue switch by putting together two offensive game plans: one outdoor, one indoor.
“We will be ready for both,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s one thing that COVID years have done for us, we are very flexible and used to adapting and adjusting to any circumstances that come up.”
With the potential for playing in wind and blowing snow, Cleveland was set to rely on its running game with Nick Chubb getting enough carries to even satisfy those Browns fans who criticize coach Kevin Stefanski for not giving the ball to his star back on every play.
Now, a game inside Detroit’s warm and cozy dome will allow the Browns to use their complete playbook.
Trouble is, so will the Bills. Led by quarterback Josh Allen, Buffalo has a distinct advantage over a Cleveland defense that hasn’t delivered all season.
Beane said the Bills were planning to play at home, and even practiced outdoors on Thursday, until the decision was made to move the game. He said the change in location shouldn’t affect the game plan.
Players on both teams were looking forward to competing in the wintry elements.
“I would love it,” Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio said. “But obviously people’s safety and the city of Buffalo. But it would be great. I grew up in California and didn’t see snow much. I was in college at Nevada, which gets snow.”
The Bills last played through a lake-effect storm in December 2017, when they defeated the Indianapolis Colts 13-7 in overtime in a game played in near white-out conditions. The storm didn’t hit until about an hour before kickoff.
“It was surreal. You come in the tunnel the grass is green, when you come back out it’s two feet of snow,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said. “It was probably one of the most fun games I ever played in.”