ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP)”Frazzled” is how Bills center Mitch Morse put it. Cornerback Tre’Davious White apologized for his language and used a profanity to sum up the duress he’s experienced over the past several days.
Amid the euphoria that followed Buffalo’s season-ending 35-23 victory over New England, the mental toll of playing six days after witnessing safety Damar Hamlin having to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati was readily apparent.
”Honestly, I don’t know how some of us did it,” White said.
The Bills received the latest in a series of encouraging updates on Monday when they were told Hamlin had been discharged from a Cincinnati hospital and flown to Buffalo, where he will continue his recovery in a hospital closer to home.
But it’s difficult to gauge how much farther this resilient group of players and coaches can ride on adrenaline without taking time to sort out their emotions.
Buffalo missed out on its chance to earn a much-needed break because its game against Cincinnati was canceled. That meant the Bills finished one-half game behind the AFC-leading Chiefs even though they won at Kansas City and finished with the same number of losses (three).
The Chiefs (14-3) earned a first-round playoff bye when they beat Las Vegas on Saturday.
By beating New England, the Bills (13-3) secured the No. 2 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage for at least their first two playoff games. Should the Bills play the Chiefs for the AFC championship, the game will be played at a neutral site under a rule change approved by NFL owners because of Buffalo’s unusual circumstances.
There’s consolation in that, given Buffalo’s past two playoff runs ended in Kansas City.
A case can be made that if any NFL team could use a break this season, it’s Buffalo, which opens the playoffs by hosting division rival Miami on Sunday.
The shocking sight of Hamlin collapsing was the latest challenge the Bills have faced while representing a community that has been devastated by a string of tragedies.
It began in May, when the Bills rallied to Buffalo’s support after a racist shooting left 10 Black people dead at a supermarket. In August, the team mourned the death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother, Luke.
The Bills’ schedule has been disrupted twice by weather.
In November, the Bills were forced to relocate their home game against Cleveland to Detroit because of a massive winter storm. A month later, the Bills mourned with the city after more than 40 people died in the wake of a two-day blizzard, which forced the team to spend Christmas Eve in Chicago.
To their credit, the Bills have not complained while closing the season on a 7-0 run and tying a single-season franchise record for wins. And they’re enjoying tremendous support from a fan base that created an electric atmosphere on Sunday, when many held up red hearts and Hamlin’s No. 3 to celebrate the player’s recovery.
Hamlin cheered along from his hospital bed in Cincinnati and addressed the team by phone in the locker room afterward.
Credit coach Sean McDermott for showing vulnerability and allowing his players time to express and make sense of their emotions during a trying stretch.
In what he called one of his shortest speeches to the team before a game, McDermott simply told players to ”settle in and just do their job, knowing that would be enough.”
The Bills followed his lead. The outcome wasn’t perfect but may have been cathartic.
Finding a way. McDermott couldn’t have envisioned how important the motto he introduced to the team this summer would become. After falling behind 17-14 to New England, Nyheim Hines responded by returning the ensuing kickoff 101 yards, his second return TD of the day. Buffalo improved to 8-3 this season when trailing at any juncture of a game, after going 2-6 in such games last season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Rest and practice time, which the Bills should get in returning to a normal schedule. Buffalo was limited to one full practice and two walkthroughs before playing New England.
Hines. His game-opening 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown provided a much-needed lift to a team needing an emotional boost.
RB Taiwan Jones had no reason to anywhere near a bouncing punt that glanced off of his leg and led to the Patriots recovering the ball at Buffalo’s 35 with 8:22 remaining. LB Matt Milano bailed out the Bills with an interception.
9 – The number of times the Bills have turned the ball over inside an opponent’s 20 this season after Josh Allen threw an interception against New England. Buffalo combined for five red-zone turnovers in its previous four seasons.
Hosting the Dolphins after the division rivals split their season series. The Dolphins beat Buffalo 21-19 in the sweltering South Florida heat in September. The Bills beat Miami 32-29 in wintry western New York conditions on Dec. 17.
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