There’s a treat for NFL fans heading into the new season. With luck, no more cardboard cutouts in the stands, or automated music and fake fan noise over the loudspeakers.

All the way through the Super Bowl, last season had limited numbers of fans, as well as a ban on pregame tailgate parties, with players and coaches having to wear masks on the sidelines.

And who can forget the cardboard cutouts?

“That was just weird, man,” said Astoria’s Jordan Poyer.

Poyer’s Buffalo Bills will be one team even more anxious to have a full stadium, since the Bills have one of the most loyal fan bases, giving Buffalo a true home field advantage.

“We’re excited to have fans back in the stadiums, and we’re excited to give something for them to cheer about,” Poyer said earlier this summer, before training camp began.

Poyer made his first appearance in local news on May 31, 2000, as a third grader receiving a PRIDE Award (for Positive, Respectful, Improved, Dependable and Encouraging) at Naselle Elementary School. Later in 2000, he was playing on the Long Beach Peninsula’s Little League Football team, scoring touchdowns and contributing in other noticeable ways. Poyer went on to become a highly valued three-sport athlete at Astoria High School.

Poyer’s hometown fans caught a glimpse of their hero in June, when he made his first visit to Astoria in over a year and staged an “NFL Experience” workout at CMH Field. He also used the visit to shoot footage for a documentary about his alcoholism, sharing the message, “It’s OK to ask for help.”

Other than that, his offseason was “as normal as it can get, under the circumstances,” Poyer said. “I’ve just been working, grinding hard, getting ready for the season.”

Poyer took a vacation to the Bahamas, “but other than that, I just went back and forth between Florida and Buffalo.”

17 games

Besides the real fans and the real noise, the big change in the NFL this season will be its first 17-game schedule. The league has cut one week off of the preseason, and added one game to the regular season. The NFL has been playing a 16-game schedule since 1978.

“We have 17 (regular season) games now,” said Poyer, entering his ninth year in the NFL and his fifth in Buffalo. “It will definitely be a grind every season. But as a competitor, that’s what you want. You want more games, more TV time, more opportunities to make plays.”

And the Bills are ready to break through. After losing four straight Super Bowls in the ‘90s, Buffalo won its first playoff game since 1995, when the Bills defeated Indianapolis 27-24 in last year’s wild card round.

And they didn’t stop there. Buffalo topped the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, 17-3, before the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Bills 38-24 in the AFC Championship, one game short of Super Bowl LV.

Season prospects

The Bills open 2021 at home Sept. 12 against Pittsburgh — another team expected to battle with Buffalo to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.

“We definitely helped ourselves in the draft,” Poyer said, referring to Buffalo’s top two picks in the 2021 draft, a pair of defensive ends. “The guys we got up front on our D-line, including Greg (Rousseau), and some guys on the offensive side of the ball, gives us some excitement. With the type of players I’ve seen work over the last couple weeks, these guys are ready to roll.”

The Bills (13-3 in 2020) will be big favorites to win the AFC East, while the rest of the division is in transition.

Long dominated by New England, the Patriots slipped to 7-9 in 2020, after a 2-5 start; and Miami finished a distant second behind the Bills at 10-6. While the Patriots will look to rebound and the Dolphins should be strong, the New York Jets are hoping another top three pick in the draft — their third in four years — will help the team that has been bringing up the rear in the AFC East for years.

Still, “I keep telling people, the AFC East might be one of the toughest divisions in football now,” Poyer said. “It’s something that you want to be a part of.”

Poyer sat out this year’s first preseason game at Detroit, and Buffalo pounded Chicago 41-15 last week to improve to 2-0 in the preseason. For what it’s worth, the 41 points was the most scored by any team in the preseason thus far.

Individually, Poyer has proven himself to be one of the top tacklers, not just for the Bills, but in the league.

In 2020, Poyer was one of just two defensive backs to record at least 100 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.

NFL.com analyst and former NFL defensive back DeAngelo Hall recently listed his top 10 safeties in the league, in which Poyer was No. 10 on the list, while Buffalo teammate Micah Hyde did not make the top 10.

“Slightly more athletic than his counterpart Micah Hyde, Poyer’s stats may not jump off the screen like his play on tape,” Hall wrote. “But I have to praise him for playing the safety position in Sean McDermott’s complex defense. McDermott asks a lot of his safeties in a number of combo coverages. Poyer excels in coverage and as a blitzer, and he’s a sure tackler at the point of attack. He’s often one of the first guys around the ball, and I don’t expect to see anything different in his age-30 season.”

‘I know what I’ve done in the league’

Like he did at Oregon State, where Poyer eventually gained All-America honors — a Pro Bowl selection in the NFL could be right around the corner for Poyer, who has certainly been deserving of a spot in pro football’s all-star game.

“It would be nice, just to have that at the end of the day,” said Poyer, who — until now — always seemed to show up on those most underrated player lists for the NFL. “I know what I’ve done in the league, people know and see what I’ve done. I just want to keep bettering myself, and everything else will fall into place.”

Poyer and Hyde, his strong safety teammate, make up one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.

They relish the underdog role.

“We know we’re the underdogs in every category, so we want to come in and prove everybody wrong,” Poyer said. “That’s been my motto my whole life, and the same with Micah. Everybody’s overlooking us, like ‘We can’t do something,’ ‘We’re not good enough,’ or this, that and the other.”

The Bills and No. 21 are again looking to prove the critics wrong.

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