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ORCHARD PARK - With all the emotion that was surging through Highmark Stadium Sunday afternoon, there was no way the Buffalo Bills were going to lose to the New England Patriots.
And they didn’t. Of course they didn’t.
Fueled in the days leading up to the regular-season finale by the incredibly good news that fallen teammate Damar Hamlin was stabilized and showing marked improvement almost by the hour, the Bills breathed a collective hurricane-force sigh of relief, then took the field as energized and motivated to win as they’ve been all season.
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No one more so than one of Hamlin’s newest teammates, Nyheim Hines.
Hines, who came to the Bills from the Colts at the trade deadline, electrified the usual sellout crowd and a huge national TV audience by returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
And then in the third quarter, with the Bills listing a bit against a fired up New England team, he did it again, this time going 101 yards for a go-ahead touchdown which ultimately sent the Bills on their way to a tense, hard-fought 35-23 victory.
The win enabled the Bills to lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. And with the Patriots losing and the Dolphins defeating the Jets, it means Miami will come to Buffalo Sunday for a 1 p.m. wild-card kickoff while the Patriots clean out their lockers for the season.
As the No. 2 seed, if the Bills beat the Dolphins in what would be a rubber match for their season series, they will also be home for the divisional round, quite likely against the No. 3 seed Cincinnati Bengals.
If they were to survive that, they will either host the AFC Championship Game if the opponent is not Kansas City, or will play the Chiefs at a neutral site, with the most talked about venue being Pittsburgh’s Acrisure Stadium.
Hines had once returned two punts for a touchdown in the same game when he was with Indianapolis, but these were his first two kickoff returns TDs in the NFL.
“I was running down the sideline, I looked over and saw nobody, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I might really be gone here,’” Hines said, recalling the opening kickoff return. “I’m so thankful it was me to, you know, bring that juice, but it’s way bigger than me and that’s what I always thought about and that’s what I felt all day. It was just bigger than me and bigger than those 10 guys today who did a great job blocking for me.”
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
Once the inactives were released for the 1 p.m. games, it was clear that the Bills were going to need to win to secure the second seed because there would be no help coming from the Ravens in Cincinnati.
The Bengals were declared AFC North champions as soon as the game with Buffalo was canceled, and that meant that the Ravens had almost nothing to play for in their game at Cincinnati. They used their third-string quarterback, rested other star players, and lost 27-16.
However, the Ravens waving the white flag ended up not mattering to the proceedings in Buffalo because Sean McDermott was able to get his team ready to play in a huge spot, despite all of the trauma it faced during the week.
“I just tried to keep it … honestly, it’s probably my shortest night before talk with them,” McDermott said of his Saturday night meeting with the players. “Was just, you know, have the proper focus that we need to have and just take it one play at a time and do your job. Nothing less, nothing more. I think the tendency possibly would have been to, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that.’ So I just wanted them to settle in and just do their job, knowing that that would be enough.”
There were several who heeded the call. Stefon Diggs had seven catches for 104 yards and a TD, Dawson Knox and John Brown each caught TDs as Allen threw for 254 yards.
And on defense, Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds all had second-half interceptions of Mac Jones to thwart several attempts the Patriots made to pull off the upset.
'Everyone's here in support of Damar': Hamlin jerseys, signs, well wishes everywhere
The Bills finished with a 13-3 record despite so many things that have happened this season, so much adversity that many teams would have buckled from under the weight. They showed incredible resolve, but now, things get ratcheted up even more.
“Yeah, we know the postseason amplifies everything; emotions, just kind of how you prepare throughout the week,” center Mitch Morse said. “But I don’t think this is one of those things that you just snap your fingers and you forget. That’s not fair to anyone. That’s not fair to Damar, or us for that matter, to think that we can just kind of flip the switch and be OK from it.
“Just kudos to the guys for really handling this as well as we possibly could. There was no script written for us. We were just kind of figuring it out on the fly and I thought guys did an admirable job, picked up guys. We’ll really lean into somewhat of a normal week in regards to preparation and come out and really put our best foot forward against a really good (Dolphins) team.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal's new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link: https://profile.democratandchronicle.com/newsletters/bills-blast
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills defeat Patriots for Damar Hamlin, will host Dolphins in playoffs