Everyone in the world of sports knows what happened last Monday night when the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals faced off in a highly anticipated matchup, with the result consequential to the AFC standings. After a week that no one will forget, the Bills would host the New England Patriots for their final regular season game of the year. Despite not being able to earn the #1 seed, the Bills would clinch the #2 seed with a win, and have a potential Chiefs vs Bills AFC Championship Game hosted at a neutral location. Meanwhile, the Patriots were win-and-in, but a loss would mean two other teams would need to lose in order for them to sneak into the postseason.
In what I will consider the play of the season across the NFL, not just for the Bills, Nyheim Hines ran back the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. After initially speeding up the middle of the field, Hines cut to his right and accelerated. From the perspective of the TV broadcast, it appeared two or three Patriots may have had an angle to cut him off, but Hines blew by them all about 35 yards from the end zone. Jim Nantz called it “storybook”, and it truly was. After everything the team had been through in the last week, the ability for the players and fans at Highmark Stadium to let out a collective sigh of relief was incredibly emotional. Josh Allen and Sean McDermott were nearly in tears on the sideline. And after all of that, there was still an entire football game to be played between two teams with something on the line.
New England Answers
Sacks stalled the first two drives for the offenses, with Greg Rousseau and Deatrich Wise getting to the opposing QB on third down. Mac Jones connected with receivers Jakobi Meyers and DeVante Parker for big gains, while Rhamondre Stevenson churned out yardage on the ground. Eight plays later, and the Patriots were at Buffalo’s two yard line, where Meyers made an incredible toe-tap touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.
Passing Game Prevails
Allen marched his way down the field, leading an 13 play, 75 yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. He connected with Stefon Diggs twice for 16 yards each, and found Gabriel Davis in a tight window for 19 yards on third and six to get Buffalo into the red zone. With plenty of time in the pocket due to the Patriots sending just three rushers, Allen patiently waited for something to open up, then darted a pass over the middle to a wide open Dawson Knox for a four yard touchdown.
Patriots Tie it Up
After both teams exchanged punts, Jones would lead New England on another scoring drive. With another sequence of successful runs and chunk pass plays, the Patriots were down the field in no time. Stevenson ran for gains of 18 and eight, and Jones found Kendrick Bourne over the middle for gains of 20 and 10. On second and goal, Parker got behind Buffalo’s zone defense for a game-tying touchdown. Although Allen would lead the Bills back down the field, he’d throw an interception to Devin McCourty at New England’s 15 yard line to end the half.
3 Turnovers for #3
The last time Buffalo’s defense recorded a meaningful interception (not including Nathan Peterman’s Hail Mary on Christmas Eve) was all the way back on November 13th against the Minnesota Vikings. That changed Sunday when the team had not one, not two, but three interceptions in the second half against New England, another touching tribute to Damar Hamlin. Their first turnover came on the Patriots opening drive, where Jones lofted a 50/50 ball to Nelson Agholor. The pass was overthrown, and Tre’Davious White was able to keep two feet in bounds and come down with the catch. Just when it looked like New England would take the lead, the former All-Pro cornerback made a crucial play.
Unfortunately, the momentum didn’t swing in Buffalo’s favor for long. On just their second play, Devin Singletary fumbled the ball away, giving the Patriots the ball at Buffalo’s 11 yard line. Thankfully, Buffalo’s defense completed the goal line stand, surrendering just three points.
Lightning Strikes Twice
On the ensuing kickoff, Hines did it again, returning the kickoff 101 yards for his second kick return touchdown of the game. Just like that, the Bills took the lead.
Buffalo forced a three-and-out, giving the ball back to Josh Allen. He connected with rookie Khalil Shakir for 28 yards to get into New England territory. Then, Allen rolled to his right on a play action, pointed downfield to direct one of his receivers, and threw a 42 yard laser down the field to John Brown, who came down with the football thanks to an amazing diving catch into the end zone. In a touching tribute, ‘Smoke’ gave the football to assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington, who performed the life-saving CPR to Hamlin.
Diggs, Defense Propel Bills to Victory
The Patriots responded with a touchdown of their own. A 14 yard completion to Parker and a 19 yard run by Damien Harris brought them to midfield in just two plays. After connecting with Meyers for 10 yards, Jones threw a 50/50 ball to DeVante Parker, who mossed Kaiir Elam, coming down with the football for a touchdown. Down by five, the Patriots attempted a two-point conversion to make it a field goal game, but the pass fell incomplete.
Allen, fully locked in after his touchdown to John Brown, did what he does best – throw bombs. After hooking up with Davis for 11 and McKenzie for 13, Allen launched a pass downfield from his own 40 yard line. The ball landed in the hands of Diggs on the run at the three yard line, who held on for a 49 yard touchdown. Tony Romo called it “one of the great throws you’ll see all year”, as Buffalo took a 35-23 lead.
Buffalo’s defense forced another three-and-out, but the ensuing punt from Michael Palardy hit the leg of Taiwan Jones after it bounced, creating a fumble recovered by the Patriots in Buffalo territory. After gains of 13 by Tyquan Thornton in the air and Harris on the ground, an offensive pass interference penalty stalled the drive. Facing third and 19, Jones overthrew a pass intended for Hunter Henry in the end zone, who only got a fingertip on the ball. By tipping the pass, the tight end allowed Matt Milano to run under the ball and come down with the interception. Despite visibly contemplating kneeling in the end zone for a touchback, Milano decided to run it out, returning it 41 yards to set up Buffalo’s next drive.
The Bills punted after Davis couldn’t come down with what would’ve been another spectacular touchdown from Allen, but the ball bounced off the hands of #13. To seal the game, Tremaine Edmunds intercepted a pass that was tipped by Harris on a check down by Jones. James Cook gained a first down on the ground, and the game was over.
What a win for Damar Hamlin! The Bills now finish the regular season with a stellar 13-3 record, capping off a seven game win streak as we approach the postseason. With the #2 seed locked up, Buffalo will have home field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. If they were to advance to the AFC Championship Game and face the Chiefs, the game will be held at a neutral site. If the game is not against the Chiefs, the game will be played in Buffalo. Still there’s a long road ahead.
The defense gave up too many chunk plays to Mac Jones, and struggled against 50/50 balls along the sideline. Still, it was encouraging to see the team generate meaningful turnovers, which went a long way towards earning the victory. This included the return of ‘Take Away Tre’, who recorded his first interception of the season, and played probably his best game of the year. Gabriel Davis had another underwhelming performance, bringing in just three of his 10 targets. Hopefully ‘Playoff Gabe’ is activated next week, after scoring 5 touchdowns in 2 postseason games last year. Tyler Bass finished off his excellent regular season strong, converting all five of his extra point attempts. Also, the Bills finish the regular season 12-0 in games that Jordan Poyer plays in, and 1-3 in games that he doesn’t.
Offensive Player of the Game: The Allen-Diggs connection
Diggs recorded his first 100 yard game since Week 11 against the Vikings, finishing the day with seven receptions for 104 yards and one touchdown. Allen was also on fire, completing 61.3% of his passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Arguably the best QB-WR duo in the league heated up at just the right time.
Defensive/Special Teams** Player of the Game: Nyheim Hines
I normally don’t have a special teams award, but I’m grouping it with defense for this award (I make the rules here). Hines produced one of the most memorable performances by a Bills player in recent memory. Years later, I will probably still feel emotional whenever I watch that opening kickoff return for a touchdown. The fact that it was three years and three months since Buffalo’s last kick return touchdown (the onside kick return by Micah Hyde against Miami), is the icing on the cake. His second kick return gave all the momentum to the Bills, and once they took that lead they never looked back.
MVP: Damar Hamlin
Hamlin rallied this team in a way that you hope will never have to happen in sports again. The scene last Monday was scary, but for him to be FaceTiming the locker room and texting players before the game was more than enough motivation to earn the win in front of Bills Mafia. The day after the game, he was transferred from Cincinnati to Buffalo, so D-Ham is back in the 716!
What’s Next: Bills vs Dolphins 1/15
In the Wild Card round, Miami returns to Buffalo, where the teams will face off for the third time this season. Tua Tagovailoa remains in concussion protocol after entering just after Christmas, while explosive running back Raheem Mostert suffered a broken thumb last week, leaving his status very much in doubt. Meanwhile, the Bills get the chance to send home an AFC East rival in back to back years, after accomplishing ‘The Perfect Game’ last Wild Card round against the Patriots. Whether it’s Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater, or Skylar Thompson under center, the Buffalo Bills have another (hopefully long) playoff journey ahead of them.
Editor’s babble: We are grateful for Colin Richey’s contributions to our blog. You can also find him on Twitter @whatthef00tball.