ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Echoes of “Let’s Go Buffalo!” pregame chants still reverberated through an emotionally charged Bills stadium celebrating injured safety Damar Hamlin when suddenly another roar erupted as Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
About three hours later, after Hines returned another kickoff 101 yards to make it 35-23 over the New England Patriots, fans were on their feet chanting “Hamlin! Hamlin! Hamline!” and the Bills players hold up three fingers in honor of the injured safety’s No. 3 jersey.
Whatever questions the Bills faced about their ability to play six days after being left stunned and saddened to watch Hamlin have to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati were he replied before the game was 14 seconds old.
“I can’t remember a game that touched me like I’ve never thought about in my life. He’s probably No. 1,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “It’s just spiritual. … You can’t draw or write it better.”
“OMFG!!!!!!!!” Hamlin posted on his Twitter account from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he has been gradually recovering throughout the week.
“HINES FREE” he tweeted again afterwards Hines’ second score. Coach Sean McDermott said the team called Hamlin on the phone and had him count down the team’s final huddle in the locker room.
Hines, acquired by Buffalo in a trade with Indianapolis two months ago, became the 11th NFL player to return two kickoffs for a score in a game and the first since Seattle’s Leon Washington in 2010.
“I feel as a community that we needed this win,” Hines said before recalling the message Hamlin’s father, Mario, sent to the team in the middle, urging them to play. “He said that’s what Damar wanted, he wanted us to come out and win against New England.
While Hines sparked the win, much of the Bills’ focus remained on the 24-year-old Hamlin, who spoke to the team via video conference Friday, telling them, “I love you guys.”
Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, who at times this season has wondered if he’ll ever recover from a knee injury he suffered in November 2021, had trouble containing his emotions after the win. his first capture season.
White apologized for using profanity in reference to how tough he was last week and noted how Hamlin texted his defensive secondary teammates apologizing for what he had put them through emotionally.
“To check on us?” White said. “I just want to give him a (damn) hug.”
Bills receiver John Brown, who scored on a 42-yard touchdown, esteemed assistant coach Denny Kellington by passing him the ball. It was Kellington who is credited for his quick response on the field in performing CPR to get Hamlin’s heart beating again.
In the past year filled with adversity in Buffalo, from a deadly snowstorm at Christmas to a deadly mass shooting at a supermarket in May, the Bills have shown their resilience by lifting up their community. Overcoming the sudden shock and mental anguish of Hamlin collapsing on the field, the victory clinched the AFC’s No. 2 seed for Buffalo (13-3).
The Bills will now host their division rival Dolphins next weekend in the wild card round.
The loss, coupled with Miami beating the New York Jets, eliminated the Patriots (8-9) from the playoffs for the second time in three years and just the fourth time in Bill Belichick’s 23 seasons as coach.
And leave it to receiver Stefon Diggs, who decided to visit Hamlin at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center immediately after the Cincinnati game was suspended to seal the victory with a 49-yard touchdown catch from Josh Allen to put Buffalo up 35-23 with 8 left: 51.
The sold-out crowd — many wearing Hamlin No. 3 T-shirts and jerseys and holding red hearts in the player’s honor — erupted as one as Allen walked off the field with his arms raised.
On the ensuing kickoff that went after the touchback, all of the Bills’ special teams players ran into the end zone and motioned to the crowd. The fans stood up as one and let out a massive roar.
Allen completed 19 of 31 for 254 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
The Patriots needed only a win to clinch a playoff spot, but stumbled late in the season, losing five of their last seven.
“I’m proud of how our guys competed and prepared. At the end of the day, us together, the players, the coaches, we just weren’t good enough today,” said Belichick, whose 19 playoff games remain tied with Don Shula on the NFL coaching list.
“We missed some opportunities today and gave up four big plays. Those were the things that changed the game.”
Mac Jones finished 26 of 40 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, including two to DeVante Parker and three interceptions — all in the second half.
Jones’ final two interceptions came on back-to-back drives in the final six minutes.
Facing third-and-19 at the Buffalo 22, Jones’ deep pass over the middle bounced off the hands of tight end Hunter Henry and was picked off by linebacker Matt Milan.
On New England’s next possession, Jones’ pass went off the hands of Damien Harris and into the hands of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty recovered a fumble by Devin Singletary. The interception was the 35th of McCourty’s 13-year career, moving him past Ty Law and Raymond Clayborn for tied for first on the franchise list.
McCourty, 35, made his 205th start for New England in what could be his final game with the franchise.
Patriots DT DaMarcus Mitchell did not return after suffering a concussion.
Patriots: The season is over.
Bills: Host Miami Dolphins in AFC wild card game.
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