Listening to Damar Hamlin speak, you hear echoes. Like most of his teammates, the Bills free safety channels his head coach, Sean McDermott. One play and one game at a time, next man up, all the operative cliches.
You can also detect the sage voice of his mentor, injured safety Micah Hyde, who has been the leader and emotional conscience of the NFL’s top secondary since coming to Buffalo as a free agent in 2017.
On Wednesday, ESPN reported that Hyde had undergone successful surgery in Los Angeles for a herniated disc in his neck. His recovery is expected to take from six to nine months. But Hyde has been a constant source of support for Hamlin and the other young defensive backs, like an honorary assistant coach.
“I talked to Micah today,” Hamlin said at his locker Wednesday afternoon. “He texted me. It’s private. But he’s a big mentor. That’s a big brother of mine, one of the guys who took me under his wing from the jump. Even when I was speaking to him, I was learning from him.
“He’s in my ear for sure. It’s a testament to him as a leader.”
It has been a trying month for the Buffalo secondary, which twice has played a game without all four of its recognized starters: Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Christian Benford, and safeties Jordan Poyer and Hyde.
Despite that, the Bills have remained an elite defense. They’re tied for first in the NFL in points allowed with the Niners (12.2). They’re second to the Niners in yards allowed at 260 a game. They’re fourth in passing yards (182.6), but first by a full half-yard in adjusted yards per pass attempt (4.3), a telling stat.
That’s amazing when you consider how compromised Leslie Frazier’s unit has been by injury. But don’t use that word around Hamlin, a sixth-round draft choice in 2021 who became a starter three games ago.
“It’s only compromised to you-all,” said Hamlin, a McKees Rocks, Pa., native who played his college ball at nearby Pitt. “You don’t get to see the day-ins and day-outs of how we bond, how we get along, who’s ready.
“All the outside sees is who’s on the field at that time. I don’t like to say compromised. I would just say, the guys that are finally getting a chance, we’ve been in the incubator, just getting ready, working.
“Whenever someone’s time comes up, you’re ready,” Hamlin said. “It’s a standard in the room, and whoever’s out there the standard is going to be upheld, regardless. You’re seeing the benefits of it.”
Since Hyde went down, the Bills have held down Tua Tagovailoa after he had a career game; shut out Lamar Jackson in the second half of a comeback win (they’ve allowed seven points after halftime all year); and kept the Steelers out of the end zone in a 38-3 rout.
As Hamlin says, they’ve upheld their own lofty standard. But things get appreciably tougher at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, when the Bills take on the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes in the latest installment of what has become the most compelling rivalry in the NFL, if not all of American team sports.
Mahomes is seen by many as the league’s best player, though the Bills’ Josh Allen is making a strong case. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to four straight AFC title games, two Super Bowls and one Lombardi Trophy. He’s been a league MVP (2018 season) and Super Bowl MVP (2019 season). KC is 54-14 in the regular season with him as the starter.
Two years in a row, the Chiefs have knocked the Bills out of the playoffs, in the AFC title game two years ago and the division round last season. In those two games, Mahomes has completed 76 percent of his passes for 703 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
McDermott and the Bills insist this is just another game on the schedule. But it could well decide who hosts the conference championship game. And of course, there’s the gnawing memory of last year’s 42-36 playoff loss, when the Bills allowed Mahomes to tie the game in the last 13 seconds of regulation, then march the Chiefs to a ridiculously easy TD to win the game after winning the coin toss in overtime.
“I mean, that did happen,” McDermott said when reminded that the 13 seconds is still an issue in the media. “That’s part of our past. We’re looking ahead to this game. That’s going to happen. People are going to write what they want to write. This team will take on its own identity.
“You learn from things like that,” he said. “and you move forward. You’re not afraid to learn from things and correct things and adjust and evolve. That’s what you do. That’s what you do in life and a sport like football.”
What the Bills have learned is that Mahomes is a remarkable quarterback and competitor, an audacious playmaker who can improvise his way through difficult situations. Left-handed passes, spin moves in traffic, you name it.
“You think you’ve got things covered up, and then he starts moving around, and it becomes backyard football, and guys are scrambling and trying to get into position to make plays,” said Leslie Frazier, the Bills’ defensive coordinator.
“He’s just a terrific athlete who can make throws from anywhere at any angle,” Frazier added. “There really is no defense for that. You’ve just got to hold on and hope you can make some plays along the way.”
Von Miller, the Bills’ supreme pass rusher, put it more succinctly: “Patrick Mahomes is the definition of a Hall of Famer.” Miller never beat the Chiefs when he was in Denver and Mahomes was the opposing quarterback.
Miller said he learned to hate the Chiefs because of the one-sided AFC West rivalry. He was rooting for the Bills in that epic playoff game against the Chiefs last January, which he watched on a plane while the Rams were returning from a road playoff victory against Tampa Bay.
“It was a great game for the ages,” he said. “Whenever they’re getting ready to put Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in the Hall of Fame, that game and of course games in the upcoming years will be talked about.”
Allen’s brilliance is beyond question as he leads the NFL in passing and remains the favorite for MVP (Mahomes is second). But he needs to beat the Chiefs and get to the Super Bowl to ascend to Mahomes’ level in the eyes of many observers.
At any rate, this is the matchup football lovers have awaited since last year’s KC-Buffalo playoff game, which some called the greatest game ever played. It’s the two best players in the NFL, and with apologies to the Eagles, quite likely the two best teams in the league, perhaps destined to meet again in January.
The Bills beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead last year in October, 38-20. Allen soundly outplayed Mahomes, completing 15 of 26 passes for 315 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. He also ran for 59 yards and a touchdown.
“I haven’t watched last year’s (regular-season) game yet,” said Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa. “I know that we’ve got a different team and they have a different team.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the guy lining up under center. Mahomes is at his best in the biggest games. His average passing yards per game in the playoffs (307.4) is the best all-time. His playoff passer rating (105.7) is second in history. Josh Allen is first at 106.6. Yeah, this is a pretty nice rivalry.
Hamlin didn’t play a single defensive snap in two games against the Chiefs last season. His work was limited to special teams. He has been solid in his three starts this season. He hit his former Pitt teammate, Kenny Pickett, at the end of a scramble, setting off a brief melee between the teams last Sunday.
The former Pitt teammates hugged it out on the field after the game. Pickett said he and Hamlin will be friends for life and told him, ‘You’re my brother.’
Hamlin feels the same way about Hyde, who texted him soon after neck surgery to help him prepare for the game. Like a true coach, he mainly talked about what the defensive backs need to do to uphold that high standard.
“He didn’t tell me nothing about Mahomes,” Hamlin said. “There’s nothing to really say. He’s already stamped. He is who he is. It’s just about worrying about us and making sure we’re doing the right things to be successful on Sunday.
“We don’t try to focus too much on the other team. It’s really all about us, and how we execute what we’ve got to do.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.