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Bills 'host' Steelers to kick off Toronto series

The Cowboys can have the label of being "America's Team." The Buffalo Bills can go one better as far as punter Brian Moorman's concerned: How about, "North America's Team."

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Cowboys can have the label of being "America's Team." The Buffalo Bills can go one better as far as punter Brian Moorman's concerned: How about, "North America's Team."

"Somebody's got to be North America's team, right? It might as well be us," Moorman said as the Bills prepare to open a five-year series of games in Toronto. The Bills' version of "Northern Exposure" begins Thursday, when they "host" the Pittsburgh Steelers at the downtown Rogers Centre. The game will be the first of an eight-game series (five regular season and three preseason), which runs through 2012, and will make the Bills the NFL's first team to play regular-season games annually outside the United States.

Buffalo will open the regular-season part of the Toronto series on Dec. 7, when it faces AFC East rival Miami.

"I hope people in Toronto welcome us," Moorman said. "I'm looking forward to getting Toronto people to believe in the Bills and make it like a home away from home."

In other preseason action Thursday, Carolina plays at Philadelphia. On Friday, Oakland plays at Tennessee.

Saturday's preseason schedule features Brett Favre prepared to make his debut with the Jets, when New York hosts Washington, while Miami is at Jacksonville, Indianapolis at Atlanta, Minnesota at Baltimore, San Diego at St. Louis, Houston at New Orleans, Arizona at Kansas City, Chicago at Seattle, Dallas at Denver and Green Bay at San Francisco.

On Sunday, Detroit is at Cincinnati and New England at Tampa Bay. On Monday, Cleveland plays at the New York Giants.

It's the international flavor of the game in Toronto that has drawn attention from outside two Rustbelt cities, with the focus on how it will impact the small-market Bills' efforts to remain viable by expanding their reach a 90-minute drive north of the border.

By establishing a foothold in Toronto, the Bills are hoping to tap into Canada's largest city and financial capital, as well as North America's fifth-largest market, featuring a regional population of about 5 million.

The move is already paying off. Toronto organizers, eager to show the NFL that the city can host a franchise of its own, are paying the Bills $78 million -- more than double the team's calculated 2006 operating income -- for the right to host the games.

"It's like electric around here," said Anthony Antonelli, senior marketing director for Rogers Media, the Canadian communications giant that is the series' main sponsor. "People are excited that the game is finally here."

That's not entirely the case.

As much buzz as there is in Toronto over becoming part of the NFL landscape, there are also concerns being raised on both sides of the border.

In Buffalo, Bills fans fear this might be the first step of the franchise's permanent relocation. Across Canada, CFL fans are worried that the NFL in Toronto could lead to the demise of the Canadian three-down game.

Most of the final 2,500 seats were distributed on Tuesday. Tickets, averaging at about $200, are also still available for the game against Miami.

Bills fans attending training camp in suburban Rochester had mixed reaction over their team losing home games to Toronto.

"I'm all for it if it helps bring the fan base to the Bills," said Joe Dunham, from Norwich, N.Y. "It's a small-market team and I'd say we need all the help we can get."

Sue Fleig, from Williamson, N.Y., was skeptical.

"That's what I'm afraid of: I definitely don't want us losing them to Toronto," Fleig said.

The Bills and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have maintained that the Toronto series is part of the team's regionalization strategy, and part of a move to keep the franchise in Buffalo.

Moorman is excited about the Bills desire to expand their fan base, and he accepts Goodell's assurances after the commissioner addressed the team during a recent trip to training camp.

"I don't think the commissioner's going to come in and tell the team the same thing that he's telling the people if it weren't true," Moorman said. "I believe what he says and I plan on finishing my career as a Buffalo Bill in Buffalo."

With all these subplots, the actual game has become secondary.

The Steelers are focused on the debut of Byron Leftwich, who signed last weekend after backup quarterback Charlie Batch broke his right collarbone in a 16-10 win over Philadelphia.

Leftwich has had only three days to get accustomed to the Steelers offense in preparing to make his first on-field appearance in nine months, since playing for Atlanta last season.

"They have not spoon-fed me. They have given me it all," Leftwich said, referring to the Steelers offensive playbook. "I wish the game was Saturday instead of Thursday to be honest with you. But there's nothing I can do about that. But it will feel real good to get out there again."

The Bills need a better outing from their Trent Edwards-led offense, which sputtered during a brief appearance in a 17-14 loss at Washington last weekend.

At Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, the game between the Titans and Raiders will feature an intriguing matchup of rookie running backs: Oakland's Darren McFadden, who was selected fourth overall, and Tennessee's Chris Johnson (24th), who had a 66-yard run for a touchdown in his debut last weekend.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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