ORchard Park, New York – Before this NFL season begins, the Buffalo Bills set a goal of winning the Super Bowl. While this is a goal shared by all teams, it was both realistic and urgent for the Bills, who believed this season’s team had as good a chance as ever to deliver a championship in this region.
The Bills quickly held on to that job through a brief mid-season slump, long-term injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller and then a life-threatening medical emergency to Damar Hamlin during a prime-time game in early January. But on Sunday, the Bills once again found themselves in a familiar place: waiting until next year.
In constant snowfall, the Bills’ season ended with a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who will challenge Kansas City in the AFC Championship game next weekend.
“Obviously we wanted to play with him and continue our mission,” said Bills quarterback Josh Allen, referring to Hamlin, who was present at Sunday’s game. “We just met a team that played better than us tonight.”
The Bills struggled to slow down Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense, while Allen couldn’t seem to get the offense into rhythm. The Bengals were ahead with three starters on their offensive line, but it was Allen who often found himself on the run, rushing to off-the-chart performances.
The last time these two teams were on the field together, on January 2, Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after doing what appeared to be a routine tackle to receiver T Higgins. This game was suspended in the first quarter and eventually cancelled. Since then, the Bills have tried to move forward, drawing strength from the steady progress of Hamlin, who was released from the hospital Jan. 11 and made his first public appearance on Sunday.
Hamlin visited the Bills’ locker room before the game Then he watched from a ward as he went on what the doctors said would be a long recovery. Two minutes into the first period, the Jumbotron show Hamlin. He put his hands in a heart symbol, then urged the crowd to cheer on the defense who was defending Boro on the goal line.
The defense held out on that series – after Ja’Marr Chase’s catch was overturned on review – but that was just a potential tipping point for the Bills that never materialized.
“There was no real energy, no juice, no momentum,” said Bills All-Pro quarterback Matt Milano.
The Bengals built a 14-point lead in the first quarter on two touchdown passes from Burrow to wide open goals – Chase in the first for 28 yards and tight end Hayden Hurst in the second for 15. Burrow did not throw an incomplete pass on the Bengals’ first two drives. The Bills, meanwhile, opened with two three-part series.
The Bills finally stopped the Bengals on their third possession, when they sacked Milano Boro on third down near midfield. When the Bills got the ball back, they marched into the end zone on a 15-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by Allen’s 1-yard touchdown catch.
After a Bengals field goal within two minutes of warning in the first half pushed Cincinnati’s lead to 17–7, the Bills fell back to inside the score early in the second period on a 25-yard field goal from Tyler Bass. But from that moment on, it was all of the Bengals who kept up the momentum that had escaped the Bills offense. Allen’s touchdown run in the second quarter marked the only time the Bills got into the end zone.
The Bills will look back at some missed opportunities. There was Allen’s well-thrown deep kick, which traveled more than 30 yards through the air, on the third field goal in the dying seconds of the third quarter. But billing receiver Gabe Davis couldn’t quite hold onto it. Later, in the middle of the fourth quarter and after Cincinnati had grown its advantage to 27-10, the Bills’ drive stalled deep in Bengals territory. They incurred a false start penalty extended to a third down, then failed to convert a fourth down from Cincinnati’s 16-yard line. Stephen Diggs He can be seen yelling at the quarterback on the sidelines as Allen studied plays off the bench.
Diggs, the team’s top receiver, briefly left the game after Allen knocked him out in the end zone, which resulted in him colliding with a cameraman. He returned for the next series and finished with four catches for 35 yards on 10 targets.
“He’s a fiery competitor,” Allen said of Diggs. “He wants the ball, and whatever it was we couldn’t get him tonight, we have to learn from him.”
With about a minute left in the game, and with the Bills trailing by 17, Allen threw an interception to Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor Brett. Bills fans booed and headed for the exits, while Bengals fans went the other way, descending the stadium stairs to cheer their team’s return to the conference championship. After the game ended, Allen remained in his locker as his teammates left the field, not removing his uniform until more than half an hour after the game had finished.
The matchup could have been a preview of what the AFC would look like for years to come: Allen and Borough vie for a chance to play Patrick Mahomes in the conference championship game. But the Bills have yet to get past the conference giants during the postseason. The last two seasons ended at the hands of Mahomes and Kansas City. This year, Burrow and the Bengals ended the Bills’ Super Bowl dream.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said the loss should be a learning opportunity for the future. But for the time being, it was an unsatisfactory end to the team who over the past few weeks have found ways to keep moving forward.
“Barriers were broken with this group in terms of being vulnerable,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “It definitely hurts knowing that this particular group has gone through so much and this chapter is closed.”