Being in one of the most famous cities in the world for a week could provide a lot of distractions to some (indeed, there have been reports of NFL players skipping curfews ahead of International Series games in previous years), but the message that every Bills player has given in response to questions about London and its allure has been the same: "it's a business trip".
"It definitely would not be fun flying back after a loss, that's for sure," Bills center Eric Wood told me earlier this week, "and we've got a bye week next week so we definitely need to take care of business. We've got a lot of respect for Jacksonville and we've got a lot of hard work first."
"We want to make it as much of a business trip as we possibly can", Rex Ryan claimed, citing the fact that the hotel (which has hosted several NFL teams in the past) were able to set up weight rooms, locker rooms and meeting rooms as if the team were at their home facility. EJ Manuel said on Friday that the team had taken that attitude to heart, saying that "we've all been professional about it, nobody's staying out past curfew or trying to go away into London an hour away. We're focused. We understand that if we go out and win this game, we can have a good week next week."
It's not always been easy - "there's been a little bit of adjustment in the time difference [for the team]," said Charles Clay, "but other than that the guys have handled [adjusting] really well, guys came out today and I felt looked sharp."
Clay had made the same trip just last year as a Dolphin in a one-sided rout of the Oakland Raiders. For Clay, the biggest difference in the trip is that Buffalo opted to spend the whole week leading up to the game in London, whereas Miami arrived a little over 48 hours before kickoff. "I definitely like the chance to get out here and spend the whole week here," Clay said, "I definitely like how it's done, practicing out here, getting acclimated to this weather, the feel and things like that."
Clay went on to say that he felt that a large number of his teammates had already played in London before, so many players had already known what to expect; but for those Bills who had not yet played at Wembley, the one thing he told them to be ready for was the crowd: "[they] were crazy, a lot of people who I could tell just loved football and they were excited just to be there, so it's definitely a great environment... we use it for energy, any time you get a crowd like that, you can build off and feed off it, you it as motivation... hearing those people screaming for you, we're all excited to get out there."
That was something Wood, one of the few remaining Bills to have played in the Toronto Series, was looking forward to: "I heard the atmosphere is great, playing in a place like Wembley has us all excited about." Offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman was less certain, saying that "we know how popular Jacksonville are over here, and it's going to be a home game for them." Still, Roman has a special weapon up his sleeve, revealing that he drew up this week's offensive gameplan with a Doctor Who pen he borrowed from his son's friend.
So the team might not feel that London has been a distraction, and that, at worst, the game would feel like a Jacksonville home game (which this game would have been had it taken place in the States anyway), but the team was able to generate its own distractions thanks to the outspokenness of Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams. Unsurprisingly, their comments generated a lot of questions from the media.
Ryan, for his part, said that he didn't have a problem with the defensive linemen venting to the media, saying that he would "never put a muzzle on a player," joking that he had "been cussed at by better than them." Still, he admitted that he agreed with some of the linemen's criticisms, stating that "I am not perfect as a play caller... if I am going to make a mistake, it's going to be something I feel strongly about but if it doesn't work out at the end of the day, that happens," saying that perhaps he "lived in [last week's game plan] too much, and so I don't necessarily disagree with Marcell and Mario's views."
While defending his players for speaking out against his scheme, some of the others in the organisations didn't rush to endorse Dareus' and Williams' views, instead dismissing them as unthinking comments made in the heat of the moment. "After a football game, people's emotions are running high," said defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, "[it] takes a lot emotionally to play a game so when emotions run as high as theirs, some people say some things and they mean it one way, say it one way, and it can be misconstrued the other way." When I asked Eric Wood if, as a team captain, he was disappointed to see teammates criticisng the coaches in the media, he replied after a lengthy pause: "yeah, but that shows they're in it and they care, and they're really passionate about it, and probably given the opportunity they would not do it again, but you want guys who care, and sometimes you might say things you might regret."
There were two other potential internal causes of distraction that Rex Ryan handled masterfully - the Percy Harvin situation, which he made very clear he would not speak about at all, and the issue of who would start at QB against the Jaguars, which Ryan ended early by starting his Thursday press conference by declaring Tyrod Taylor "out". Still, while the issue of the starting QB for Sunday's game was no longer up in the air, it became the first question on every journalist's lips for the rest of the week.
When Manuel took the podium, he said that he wasn't really surprised by the development, though he did say that Taylor had told him that "he said he felt fine running and moving around." Sunday gives Manuel an opportunity to improve on last week's performance, saying "my mind set's different... going into the last game, you study so much, and things don't happen exactly like you saw them on tape, but that's not how football's played, you gotta just play the game and that's my approach."
Manuel admitted that it's an area he needs to get better in - "not throwing off what I saw on tape. It's one thing I noticed when I watched the film on Monday, it's just to play that game. Could have thrown a hitch here instead of forcing the ball down the field to [Chris] Hogan, or I could have thrown the backside slant to Sammy [Watkins] on one of those plays... if you play the game, you fall into those kind of things." He repeated on Friday that "I know there were two or three plays i wish I could have back, where I was just simply overthinking, overanalysing their defense. I know this week to just go out and take what they give me."
Manuel will be boosted by playing in an offense that he feels suits him particularly well: "I love this offense. When Coach Roman got here back in April and we started working... I knew it was something that would fit me well. Obviously I saw how effective Colin Kaepernick was, and I feel we're kinda similar players." For Roman, when I asked him about Manuel's comparison to Kaepernick, said "I think each guy is very unique. I think EJ has his own path... I think there are similarities you can draw, but I do think each guys is unique and that's how I approach them." Still, Roman did say there was one QB that Manuel reminded him of - Steve McNair, who played for the Ravens while Roman was on Baltimore's coaching staff.
EJ knows that while the time on the bench has helped him improve, Sunday gives him another opportunity to learn from live fire: "when you play, you go through rough patches, you have good days and bad days, and you can learn from your mistakes, whereas when you're sometimes taking a step back, you can watch [others] make those mistakes, and then when you get the opportunity you don't make the same ones. I think it goes both ways. I've seen QBs like Blake Bortles for example, who's young in his career, starting to turn that corner and getting better more consistently. I think the same thing's happening to me, I turned the corner in the preseason when I had the opportunity to go out and show what I can do. It's all about the process of learning and game experience."
Manuel's not the only player who has that opportunity to go out and show what he can do. Robert Woods told us that Watkins' injury and Harvin's absence "gives me an opportunity to make plays, to go out there and be a leader of the offense. We've got guys down, need guys to step up and try and get the win." With the receivers out, Manuel said the tight ends are "going to play a huge role for us, any time we can get the ball in Charles Clay's and Chris Gragg's hands, both the guys I think are receiver-type tight ends so they're going to be pivotal in our gameplan".
Gragg was excited about Manuel getting the start: "me and EJ, we been in Buffalo the same time, came in together, played together, seems like every time we play together he's always trying to find me. I tell him, if he's in a bind, find 8-9. I try to help him out, he's a good QB and I just try to make plays for him... I always want to go out and try to make plays whether it be blocking or passing, and I know EJ likes to find me, so I love catching from him."
The one other element that the Bills have in their pocket, one they couldn't really begin to utilise until last week - LeSean McCoy. Roman called McCoy "one of the best running backs in the world", and, according to Charles Clay, "he's a huge lift, a threat from any spot on the field. Whether it's running the ball, you can put him out at receiver... no matter where you line him up, he's a dangerous weapon so it's always great to have that element to give defenses trouble." Manuel agreed, saying "as many touches as you can give Shady the better, so we'll try to get him matched up on some of those linebackers and things like that."
With McCoy back in, but with all those receivers out, some may expect that to have an effect on Jacksonville's defense - but Manuel doesn't feel it'll change much. "The already load the box," EJ said," from what I've seen on tape or going against Cam Newton, and they had seven or eight in the box against Jameis [Winston], so I think that's what they do on defense to try and stop the run and promote the pass." Still, for EJ, it's not about that Jags: "Jacksonville do a good job, but I've always felt that it's about executing on offense, not so much what the defense are doing."
If Manuel can execute, Roman wouldn't confirm or deny if it would have any long term implications as to who will be the starting QB on the other side of the bye week: "right now, [Manuel] is playing this game and believe it or not, that''s as far as we're looking... what I plan on doing is have him light it up, and then we cross bridges when we get to them."
For Manuel, if he can lead this team, without its playmakers at wideout, to victory in London, he may very well force the coaching staff to have to cross that bridge on that long flight back to Buffalo.