January 8, 2023 Updated: January 8, 2023 11:32 PM
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) – The echoes of “Let’s Go Buffalo!” pregame chants still reverberated through an emotion-charged Bills stadium celebrating injured safety Damar Hamlin, when another roar suddenly erupted as Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
About three hours later, and after Hines returned another kickoff 101 yards for a go-ahead in a 35-23 win over the New England Patriots, fans were on their feet chanting “Hamlin! Hamlin! Hamlin! and the Bills players raising three fingers in honor of the injured safety’s No. 3 jersey.
Any questions the Bills faced about being able to play six days after being stunned and saddened to watch Hamlin being resurrected on the field in Cincinnati were answered before the game’s 14-second mark.
“I can’t remember a play that touched me so much that I don’t think of it in my life. It’s probably No. 1,” said quarterback Josh Allen. “It’s just spiritual. … You can’t draw or write this better.
“OMFG!!!!!!” Hamlin posted on his Twitter account from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he spent the week progressively recovering.
“HINES FREE,” he tweeted again after Hines’ second score. Coach Sean McDermott said the team contacted Hamlin by phone and asked him to recount the team’s final locker room meeting.
Acquired by Buffalo in a trade from Indianapolis two months ago, Hines became the 11th NFL player to return two scoring kickoffs in one game, and the first since Seattle’s Leon Washington in 2010.
“We as a community felt like we needed this win,” Hines said before recalling the message Hamlin’s dad Mario gave the team on Wednesday urging them to play. “He said that’s what Damar wanted, he would want us to step up and beat New England.”
While Hines teased the win, much of the Bills’ focus remained on Hamlin, 24, who addressed the team via video conference call on Friday, in which he said, “I love you guys.”
Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, who at times this season has questioned whether he’ll ever recover from a knee injury sustained in November 2021, has struggled to contain his emotions after catching his first interception of the season.
Apologizing for using profanity when referring to how tough the past week has been, White watched as Hamlin texted his defensive secondary teammates apologizing for what he put them through emotionally.
“For him to check us out?” White said. “I just want to hug him (heck) out of it.”
Bills receiver John Brown, who scored on a 42-yard touchdown, honored assistant coach Denny Kellington by handing him the ball. It was Kellington who was credited with his quick response in the field in performing CPR to get Hamlin’s heart beating again.
Last year, filled with adversity that hit Buffalo, from a deadly blizzard at Christmas to a fatal mass shooting in a grocery store in May, the Bills showed their resilience by uplifting their community. Overcoming the sudden shock and mental agony of Hamlin’s on-field meltdown, the win secured Buffalo (13–3) No. 2 in the AFC.
The Bills will now host their divisional rival Dolphins in the wild card round next Sunday.
The loss, along with Miami’s win over the New York Jets, knocked the Patriots (8-9) out of the playoffs for the second time in three years, and only the fourth time in 23 seasons during Bill Belichick’s tenure.
And leave it to receiver Stefon Diggs, who made a point of visiting Hamlin at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center immediately after the Cincinnati game was suspended, to seal the victory with a 49-yard touchdown run from Allen to put Buffalo ahead 35- 23 with 8:51 remaining.
The sold-out crowd — many of them wearing Hamlin’s No. 3 jerseys and jerseys and holding red hearts in the player’s honor — exploded as one when Allen walked off the field with his hands raised.
On the ensuing kickoff, which went for a touchback, all of the Bills’ special teams players ran into the end zone and waved to the crowd. The fans, as one, rose to their feet and let out a great roar.
Allen finished 19 of 31 for 254 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
The Patriots needed just one win to clinch a playoff berth, but they ended up stumbling towards the close of the season by losing five of their last seven.
“Proud of the way our guys competed and prepared. In the end, collectively, players, coaches, we just weren’t good enough today,” said Belichick, whose 19 playoff appearances remain tied with Don Shula on the NFL coaching list.
“Today we missed some opportunities and gave up four big plays. Those were the things that made the difference in the game.”
Mac Jones was 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 down the middle slipped out of tight end Hunter Henry’s grasp and was cleared by linebacker Matt Milano.
On New England’s next possession, Jones’ pass bounced off Damien Harris and into the hands of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Patriots quarterback Devin McCourty had an interception and recovered the fumble from Devin Singletary. The interception was the 35th of McCourty’s 13-year career, leaving him behind Ty Law and Raymond Clayborn, who are tied for first on the franchise list.
McCourty, 35, made his 205th start for New England in what could be his last game for the franchise.
Patriots DT DaMarcus Mitchell did not return after suffering a concussion.
The Bills host the Dolphins at 1:00 p.m. EST next Sunday.
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