ORCHARD PARK, NY – Before this NFL season started, the Buffalo Bills had a goal of winning the Super Bowl. While this is a goal shared by both teams, it was true and important to the Bills, who believed this season’s team had the best chance to compete in the region.
The Bills persevered through a midseason slump, short-term injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller and an emergency that put Damar Hamlin’s life on the sidelines in early January. But on Sunday, the Bills found themselves back in familiar territory: waiting until next year.
Under a steady snow, the Bills’ season ended with a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who will face Kansas City in next week’s AFC championship game.
“Obviously we wanted to play him and continue our career,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said of Hamlin, who was in Sunday’s game. “We just ran into a team that played better than us tonight.”
The Bills struggled to slow down Joe Burrow’s offense with the Bengals, while Allen couldn’t get the offense going. The Bengals were down three on their offensive line, but it was Allen who was often on the run, rushing to make plays.
The last time the two teams were on the same field, on Jan. 2, Hamlin had a heart attack after making what appeared to be a routine pass on Tee Higgins. The game was suspended for the first quarter and eventually abandoned. Since then, the Bills have tried to improve, drawing strength from the progress of Hamlin, who was released from the hospital on Jan. 11 and made his first public appearance on Sunday.
Hamlin visited the Bills locker room before the game and watched from the crowd as he continues what doctors say will be a long recovery. At two minutes into the first half, the Jumbotron screen showed Hamlin. He put his hands in a heart sign, then encouraged the crowd to cheer for the defense, which was protecting Burrow on the goal line.
The defense made the series — after Ja’Marr Chase’s catch was knocked on a review — but this was one of several potential changes the Bills didn’t make.
“There was no real power, water, no power,” said Matt Milano, the Bills’ All-Pro linebacker.
The Bengals built a 14-point lead in the first quarter on two touchdown passes from Burrow to open targets – The first rush of 28 yards and tight end Hayden Hurst on the second 15. Burrow did not throw an incomplete pass. for Bengal’s first two runs. The Bills, too, opened with two thirds and an out.
The Bills stopped the Bengals on third down, when Milano chased down Burrow on third down near the middle. After the Bills got the ball back, they marched to the end of a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by an Allen touchdown run on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
After a Bengals field goal inside the two-minute warning of the first half pushed Cincinnati to a 17-7 lead, the Bills stormed back to late in the second half on a 25-yard field goal from Tyler Bass. But from then on, it was all Bengals, whose entire game continued to fail the Bills’ offense. Allen’s run in the second quarter was the only time the Bills got into the end zone.
The Bills look back on their missed opportunities. There was Allen’s deep shot, which traveled more than 30 yards in the air, on third down in the final seconds of the third quarter. But Bills receiver Gabe Davis still couldn’t catch it. Later, midway through the fourth quarter and after Cincinnati extended its lead to 27-10, the Bills’ drive stalled deep in Bengal territory. He received a false start penalty that extended the third quarter, then failed to convert on fourth down from Cincinnati’s 16-yard line. Stephen Diggs seems to be yelling at the quarterback on the sidelines where Allen studied the game on the bench.
Diggs, the team’s leading receiver, left the game briefly after Allen tackled him in the end zone, which led to a collision with a photographer. He returned the next series and finished with four catches for 35 yards on 10 carries.
“He’s a tough competitor,” Allen said of Diggs. “He wants the ball, and whatever we failed to get him the ball tonight, we have to learn from it.”
With a minute left in the game, and the Bills trailing by 17, Allen threw a shot at Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Bills fans booed and headed for the exits, while Bengals fans went the other way, descending the stadium steps to cheer their team’s return to the conference championship. After it was over, Allen took his place as his teammates left the stadium, not removing his uniform until half an hour after the game.
This game could have been a foreshadowing of what the AFC would look like in years to come: Allen and Burrow competing for the chance to play Patrick Mahomes in the championship game. But the Bills have so far been unable to get past the conference giants during the postseason. Their last two seasons ended at the hands of Mahomes and Kansas City. This year, Burrow and the Bengals ended the Bills’ Super Bowl dreams.
The loss should be a learning opportunity for the future, Bills Coach Sean McDermott said. But for now, it was a disappointing end for a team that in the past few weeks has found ways to move forward.
“Barriers were broken by this team because of their vulnerability,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “It’s very hard for me to know that this team has gone through so much and this chapter is closed.”