By JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — The echoes of “Let’s Go Buffalo!” pregame chants were still reverberating through an emotionally charged Bills stadium celebrating injured safety Damar Hamlin, when another roar suddenly erupted as Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Some three hours later, and after Hines returned another kickoff 101 yards for a go-ahead score in a 35-23 win over the New England Patriots, the fans were on their feet chanting “Hamlin! Hamlin! Hamlin!” and Bills players holding up three fingers in honor of the injured safety’s No. 3 jersey.
Whatever questions the Bills faced regarding being capable of playing six days after being left stunned and saddened as they watched Hamlin being resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati were answered before the game was 14 seconds old.
“I can’t remember a play that touched me like that I don’t think in my life. It’s probably No. 1,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “It’s just spiritual. … You can’t draw that one up or write that one up any better.”
“OMFG!!!!!!” Hamlin posted on his Twitter account from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he has spent the week progressively recovering.
“HINES FREE” he tweeted again after Hines’ second score. Coach Sean McDermott said the team reached Hamlin by phone and had him count down the team’s final huddle in the locker room.
Acquired by Buffalo in a trade with Indianapolis two months ago, Hines became the NFL’s 11th player to return two kickoffs for scores in a game, and first since Seattle’s Leon Washington in 2010.
“We as a community, I feel like we needed this win,” Hines said before recalling the message Hamlin’s father, Mario, delivered to the team on Wednesday in urging them to play. “He said, that’s what Damar wanted, he would want us to push forward, and to win against New England.”
While Hines sparked the win, much of the Bills focus remained on the 24-year-old Hamlin, who addressed the team by videoconference on Friday, in which he told them: “Love you boys.”
Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, who at times this season questioned if he’d ever recover from a knee injury sustained in November 2021, had difficulty holding back his emotions after earning his first interception of the season.
Apologizing for using a profanity in referring to how difficult last week was, White noted how Hamlin texted his defensive secondary teammates by apologizing for what he put them through emotionally.
“For him to check on us?” White said. “I just want to hug the (heck) out of him.”
Bills receiver John Brown, who scored on a 42-yard touchdown, honored assistant trainer Denny Kellington by handing him the ball. It was Kellington who is credited for his quick on-field response in performing CPR to get Hamlin’s heart beating again.
In the past year filled with adversity striking Buffalo, from a deadly snowstorm over Christmas to a fatal mass-shooting at a supermarket in May, the Bills showed their resilience by uplifting their community. Overcoming the sudden shock and mental distress of Hamlin collapsing on the field, the win secured Buffalo (13-3) the AFC’s No. 2 seed.
The Bills will now host their division rival Dolphins in the wild-card round next Sunday.
The loss, coupled with Miami beating the New York Jets, eliminated the Patriots (8-9) from the playoffs for the second time in three years, and just the fourth time in 23 seasons during Bill Belichick’s coaching tenure.
And leave it to receiver Stefon Diggs, who made a point to visit Hamlin in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center immediately following the game in Cincinnati was suspended, to seal the victory with a 49-yard touchdown catch from Allen to put Buffalo ahead 35-23 with 8:51 remaining.
The sold-out crowd — many of them wearing No. 3 Hamlin shirts and jerseys, and holding up red hearts in the player’s honor — erupted as one as Allen walked off the field with his hands raised.
On the ensuing kickoff, which went for a touchback, Bills special teams players all raced into the end zone and motioned to the crowd. The fans, as one, stood up and let out a massive roar.
Allen finished 19 of 31 for 254 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
The Patriots needed only a win to clinch a playoff berth, but wound up stumbling in closing the season by losing five of their last seven.
“Proud of the way our guys competed and prepared. In the end, collectively, players, coaches, we just weren’t good enough today,” said Belichick, whose 19 playoff appearances remain tied with Don Shula on the NFL coaching list.
“Today we missed some opportunities, and gave up four big plays. Those were the things that made a difference in the game.”
Mac Jones finished 26 of 40 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, including two to DeVante Parker, and three interceptions — all coming in the second half.
Jones’ final two interceptions came on consecutive drives in the final six minutes.
Facing third-and-19 at the Buffalo 22, Jones’ deep pass over the middle went off the hand of tight end Hunter Henry, and was picked off by linebacker Matt Milano.
On New England’s next possession, Jones’ pass went off the hands of Damien Harris, and into the hands of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty had an interception and recovered Devin Singletary’s fumble. The interception was the 35th of McCourty’s 13-year career, moving him one behind Ty Law and Raymond Clayborn, who are tied for first on the franchise list.
The 35-year-old McCourty made his 205th start for New England in what could be his final game for the franchise.
Patriots DT DaMarcus Mitchell did not return after sustaining a concussion.
The Bills host the Dolphins at 1 p.m. EST next Sunday.