ORCHARD PARK, NY – Before this NFL season started, the Buffalo Bills set a goal of winning a Super Bowl. While that’s a goal shared by all teams, it’s realistic and pressing for the Bills, who believed this season’s team had a good chance to finally deliver a championship to the region.
The Bills were committed to the task through a brief offseason slump, long-term injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller, and Tamar Hamlin’s life-threatening medical emergency during a prime-time game in early January. But on Sunday, the Bills found themselves back in a familiar place: waiting until next year.
Under a steady snowstorm, 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 for him and continue our work,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said of Hamlin, who attended Sunday’s game. “We ran into a team that played better than us tonight.”
Joe Burrow and the Bills struggled to slow down the Bengals’ offense, while Allen couldn’t get the offense into a rhythm. The Bengals lost three starters on their offensive line, but Allen often found himself on the run, scrambling to make plays outside of the scheme.
The last time these two teams were on the field together, on Jan. 2, Hamlin suffered a heart attack on what appeared to be a routine tackle by receiver Dee Higgins. That game was suspended in the first quarter and eventually canceled. Since then, the Bills have tried to push forward, drawing strength from the steady progress of Hamlin, who was released from the hospital on Jan. 11 and made his first public appearance Sunday.
Hamlin went to the Bills locker room before the game He then watched from a suite as doctors continued what doctors said would be a long recovery. Two minutes into the first half, the Jumbotron on the field showed Hamlin. He folded his arms in a heart sign and then urged the crowd to cheer for the defense that was guarding Burrow on the goal line.
The defense held that series — Ja’Mar Chase’s touchdown catch was overturned on review — but it was one of the few potential turning points for the Bills.
“There was no real energy, no juice, no speed,” Bills All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano said.
The Bengals built a 14-point lead in the first quarter on two touchdown passes from Burrow to wide-open targets — to Chase for 28 yards and tight end Hayden Hurst for 15. Burrow didn’t throw an incomplete pass. On the Bengals’ first two drives. Meanwhile, the Bills opened with two three-and-out series.
The Bills finally stopped the Bengals on their third possession when Milano sacked Burrow on third down near midfield. When the Bills got the ball back, they marched into the end zone on a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by an Allen touchdown run capped by a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
A Bengals’ field goal inside the two-minute warning of the first half pushed Cincinnati’s lead to 17-7, and the Bills pulled within one score on Tyler Pass’ 25-yard field goal early in the second half. But from then on, the Bengals kept up the momentum all game, eluding the Bills’ offense. Allen’s second-quarter touchdown run was the only time the Bills got into the end zone.
The Bills will look back on some missed opportunities. Allen’s well-thrown deep shot in the closing seconds of the third quarter traveled more than 30 yards in the air. But Bills receiver Gabe Davis couldn’t catch it. Then, midway through the fourth quarter, after Cincinnati built its lead to 27-10, a Bills drive stalled deep in Bengals territory. They suffered a false start penalty that extended to third down and then failed to convert on fourth down from Cincinnati’s 16-yard line. Stephen Dix He could be seen yelling at the quarterback Off to the side Allen studied the plays on the bench.
Diggs, the team’s top receiver, briefly left the game after Allen tackled him in the end zone, leading to a confrontation with a photographer. He returned on fourth down 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 if we can’t get him the ball tonight, we have to learn.”
With a minute left in the game and the Bills trailing by 17, Allen threw an interception to Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Bills fans cheered and headed toward the exits, while Bengals fans went the other way, descending the stadium steps to cheer their team’s return to the conference championship.
This game could have been a preview of what the AFC would look like in years to come: Allen and Burrow dueling for Patrick Mahomes’ chance to play in the conference championship game. But the Bills have yet to get past the conference’s giants in 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 dream.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said the loss was a learning opportunity for the future. But for now, it’s an unsatisfying result for a team that has found ways to push forward over the past few weeks.
“Barriers were broken with this group in terms of being vulnerable,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “This particular group has gone through so much and it certainly hurts a little more to know that this chapter is closed.”