The Buffalo Bills defeated the New England Patriots 35-23 at Highmark Stadium on Sunday in the final game of the regular season. The loss eliminates the Patriots from the playoffs and gives the Bills the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The game had more meaning than just your typical game, as it is the first time the Bills have played since safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field during Monday night's game.
It was an emotional pregame scene in Buffalo as the players, coaches and fans showed love for Hamlin. Bills players and coaches were wearing a No. 3 patch and many had on a No. 3 hat. Hamlin was watching the game from his hospital bed in Cincinnati and tweeting reactions to some of the biggest plays, including a pair of Nyheim Hines kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Hamlin and Bills fans everywhere did not have to wait long for a play to celebrate. On the opening kickoff, Hines took the ball 96 yards to score a touchdown, marking the team's first opening kickoff return for a touchdown in 18 years. The Bills sideline was visibly emotional and the celebration looked extra special.
The Patriots have struggled scoring in the first quarter, but were able to Sunday, thanks to an incredible grab by Jakobi Meyers in the corner of the end zone. The touchdown was reviewed, but it was determined that both feet were in.
Dawson Knox answered by catching a 4-yard pass from Bills quarterback Josh Allen to give the Bills a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, but it didn't last long. Mac Jones and Co. marched down the field in a drive capped off with a 2-yard catch from DeVante Parker to tie things up in Buffalo heading into halftime.
The Patriots came out strong in the second half and were on the brink of scoring, but Jones threw a pick on the goal line on a pass intended for Nelson Agholor that Bills' Tre'Davious White came up with instead. It appeared like a momentum shift, but the impressive Patriots defense did what it's been doing all season and took the ball away from its opponent. Devin Singletary was tackled by Jonathan Jones, and fumbled. McCourty recovered the ball, giving the Patriots the ball back in great field position right after Jones' interception.
The Patriots were only able to get three points off the takeaway, but still took their first lead of the game at 17-14. The lead lasted just a moment. On the next play, Hines returned his second kickoff of the day, this time bringing it 101 yards to the house and giving the Bills back the lead, this time for good.
Around five minutes later the Bills found themselves in the end zone again, this time off an incredible 42-yard pass from Allen to John Brown, putting Buffalo up 28-17.
Needing a win to reach the playoffs, New England continued to fight and scored a touchdown of its own on the very next drive. Jones threw up a great pass and Parker was able to come down with an incredible catch and extend into the end zone for his second touchdown. The Patriots' two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, leaving the score at 28-23 Bills.
The Bills weren't done scoring as Allen threw up another incredible touchdown pass. He connected with Stefon Diggs on a 49-yard bomb to extend their lead, 35-23.
The Patriots went three-and-out on their next drive, but Buffalo's Taiwan Jones muffed the punt and the ball was recovered by Patriots Ja'Whaun Bentley. The Patriots not only didn't capitalize on the drive, but gave the ball up with another interception in the end zone. Jones' pass intended for Hunter Henry was intercepted by Matt Milano.
The Patriots offense needed a score, but instead got another Jones interception, this one by Tremaine Edmunds on a tipped pass. The interception essentially ended the Patriots' chances of staging any sort of comeback, and with the Dolphins defeating the Jets, it also ended their season.
Why the Bills won
The Bills won an emotional divisional game, where the Patriots gave them a more difficult time than many thought they would. The Bills came out strong with the kickoff return to start the game and had a lead for the majority of the game. Two special teams touchdowns in a game is unheard of these days, but especially from the same player. The Bills' unreal performance from Hines immediately set them up for success and after the only point in the game where they were losing, gave them back the lead.
The Bills did have their fare share of takeaways and some crucial ones at that, but great teams always find a way to bounce back from those mistakes and the Bills are a great team.
Quarterback Josh Allen's mere existence is another reason for Buffalo's win. His ability to extend plays even when he is being rushed, hit or is throwing flat footed is what puts him atop all quarterbacks in this league. He had two touchdowns from passes over 40 yards and even the best defenses have a hard time shutting him down.
On defense, the Bills made sure to stop Jones and his squad when it mattered most and came up with key interceptions to help set their offense up for success.
Why the Patriots lost
The Patriots put up an excellent fight, but once again, turnovers, offensive mistakes and struggles in the red zone cost them a game. Right out the gate the Patriots special teams gave up a touchdown and before the game was over, gave up another.
The team continues to miss some crucial third downs and while it was able to convert on two fourth downs, it was sometimes not able to make the attempt to extend the drive due to field position and were forced to punt. They also still struggle in the red zone and their inability to turn red zone trips into touchdowns is a serious problem.
While not all were his fault, Jones ended the game with three interceptions, two in the red zone. It is hard to win a game with those numbers. The defense was the shining light, as it has been all season, but the story of the year has been the offense not providing enough support for the other phases of the game. The offense was not all bad and did have numerous shining moments against a really good defense. When playing a game against a team as resilient and complete as the Bills, it takes more than just great plays to beat them -- you also have to eliminate costly mistakes.
The game was very competitive and was a back-and-forth contest. While the Patriots were in the game right up until the end, there was a clear moment when it felt like the Bills were going to win this one. The second runback by Hines gave the Bills their lead back shortly after losing it for the first time in the game. The 101-yard return was not only a statement, but put Buffalo up 21-17. On their next offensive drive, the Bills scored again, proving just how dominant they can be. Back-to-back touchdowns is impressive enough, but the way the Bills scored these two touchdowns one made it that more highlight-worthy. The other TD was a 42-yard pass from Allen to John Brown -- another example of how good the team's offense is.
Play of the game
The undisputed play of the game came on the initial kickoff, when Nyheim Hines took the ball 96 yards to the house to give the Bills a very early lead. After the events honoring Damar Hamlin ahead of the game, there were already a lot of emotions from players, coaches and fans as the game began. With such an incredible play to kick off the Bills first game since Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, the feelings heightened and the Bills sideline was again visibly emotional as they celebrated the touchdown. All kickoff returns are exciting, but this one had even more meaning for the Bills, the city of Buffalo and Hamlin, who watched the game from his hospital bed.
Hamlin weighed in on the play:
The regular season is officially over for the Patriots and the Bills. The Patriots are officially eliminated from the playoffs with the Dolphins' win over the Jets. The Bills secure the No. 2 seed with the win and will not have to play a game in another team's stadium. They could end up meeting the Chiefs at a neutral site in the AFC title game, but they will otherwise have home-field advantage in the first two rounds. Next week, the Bills will play the No. 7 seed Dolphins.
This will be the third time these AFC East teams meet this season.
After the game, players shared messages to Hamlin and fans chanted, "Hamlin! Hamlin!"
"We did it for 3."
During the postgame press conference, Tremain Edmunds said, "This game is bigger than us … I was just glad we were able to do it for Damar."
He also commented on the exceptional leadership of head coach Sean McDermott, acknowledging what a difficult position he was in leading the team through such a tough time. Edmunds said McDermott has "top notch leadership" adding "you couldn't ask for anything more."
Tre'Davious White gave a shoutout to Hamlin and the fans after the win.
"Shoutout to Bills Mafia baby, we got a dub, off to the playoffs. We did it for 3. You see it right here? Right here? We represent for you baby. On to the playoffs we got Miami. We got work to do, but we're gonna celebrate this one for 24 hours and back to work baby. Go Bills," he said.