New York State In-depth

The Bills-Bengals rematch brings a new perspective to Buffalo’s robust season

ORCHARD PARK, NY – What happened the last time the Buffalo Bills were on the field with the Cincinnati Bills will never be forgotten. Should not be. Can not be.

Damar Hamlin collapsed in the first quarter. His heart stopped beating. As emergency responders worked to save the life of the sophomore Bill, the big prime-time showdown in Cincinnati, which pitted two of the AFC’s top teams against each other, became an afterthought. The NFL eventually canceled the game.

And here they are again, less than three weeks since the incident that shook the NFL to the core.

Bills against Bengal. The stakes will be even higher at Highmark Stadium on Sunday when the winner advances to the AFC Championship game.

“They’re going to come out at their best here,” Buffalo left tackle Dion Dawkins said Friday. “We will try to do our best. We will keep swinging, beat after beat.”

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As much as respect grew between teams this Monday night, and a shared bond in the wake, as they grappled with the possibility of a man losing his life on a soccer field, the AFC Divisional Playoffs will be more of the same. Feelings are disconnected from the task at hand.

Still, this week’s version of a big game – the Bengals have won nine straight games, the Bills are on a seven-game winning streak – isn’t complete without the added perspective since these teams last met.

There was much ado about Hamlin, who returned home nine days after his cardiac arrest and continued to make progress in his recovery. He made multiple visits to the team’s headquarters this week after watching the first-round playoff win over Miami on TV.

Will Hamlin show up in person on Sunday?

“I don’t know the answer,” Bills coach Sean McDermott told reporters Friday. “We just ride to the rhythm of Damar. It’s what he needs and how we can help him. And how our training staff can help him. Go at his pace, so to speak.”

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Imagine the Sunday energy boost Hamlin could offer fans if they saw him in public for the first time since his collapse. On the other hand, however symbolic a Hamlin performance may be, his recovery must not be jeopardized for the show. According to a family spokesman this week, Hamlin is still facing a “protracted” recovery. Although previously reported that doctors believe he is neurologically intact, he still requires oxygen and quickly becomes out of breath.

However, Hamlin’s teammates have already been given a jolt by his mere presence at headquarters.

“It was just great to see him back in the building,” Bill’s defense attorney Greg Rousseau told USA TODAY Sports. “If you want to talk to him, talk to him, he has a big grin on his face. Just glad to have him back.”

Rousseau, a sophomore pro, echoed what other players have said about dealing with the emotions that arose from Hamlin’s situation. The first few days were tense due to the uncertainty. As Hamlin’s condition improved, so did teammates’ spirits.

“It sure was hard,” Rousseau said. “But just knowing that he would be okay was cool.”

Dawkins commended McDermott for connecting with players and striking the right tone. The Bills played their regular season finale against New England six days after the Hamlin emergency and opened the playoffs last Sunday with a win over Miami.

The key to regaining focus?

“Just taking the pressure off us, allowing us to process our emotions naturally without forcing what’s next,” said Dawkins, one of the team’s captains. “The coach could have been like, ‘Okay guys, you’ve had two days. It’s time to leave.’ He didn’t. He made everyone flow in as smoothly as they wanted. As if no one was rushed. Not being pushed and pulled in different directions was a good thing mentally.”

Handling the Hamlin situation was just the latest test of the Bills’ resolve. A month ago, they were part of a Buffalo community hit by a snow storm, killing 47 people. In November, a snowstorm prompted the NFL to move the Bills’ game against the Cleveland Browns to Detroit.

Additionally, many Bills players were moved by a racist attack in May, in which a mass shooting at a Buffalo convenience store that served the African American community killed 10 and injured three.

“There’s been a lot of things since the spring,” Case Keenum, the veteran backup quarterback, told USA TODAY Sports. “It was like, ‘What’s next? What adversity do we have now?'”

Then there are the playoff setbacks of recent years, which articulate a different kind of adversity. After a 17-year playoff drought, the Bills have emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender under McDermott, in his sixth season at the helm, and GM Brandon Beane.

But last year, the Bills suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the Divisional Playoffs in Kansas City. The Chiefs drove the length of the field in the final 13 seconds of the fourth quarter to force overtime — and then never allowed Buffalo to get the ball back by scoring a TD on OT’s first possession, ultimately changing the NFL rules led.

Two years ago, the Bills advanced to the AFC title game in Kansas City and lost.

The resilience of the team was tested on and off the field – and strengthened.

“It gives you a more stable foundation,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen told reporters this week. “The more fight the more adversity you can see over the course of a year only makes you stronger. We’ve been in some really weird situations this year that not many teams have ever gone through. So, to be able to have that under our belt, to understand those emotions, those situations, and just try to use them to our advantage.”

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