ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Nyheim Hines ignited an emotionally charged atmosphere celebrating injured Bills safety Damar Hamlin by returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, and Buffalo clinched the AFC’s second playoff seed with a 35-23 win over the New England Patriots on 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. Buffalo will now host their division rival Dolphins in the wild-card round next weekend.
With the game in hand, Bills players held up three fingers in honor of Hamlin’s number with the crowd chanting “Hamlin! Hamlin!”
The Bills (13-3) closed their season by winning their final seven games and overcame an emotional week in which the team was left devastated in watching Hamlin collapse after going into cardiac arrest and having to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati on Monday night.
What followed was progressive good news of Hamlin’s remarkable recovery in which he was not only able to breathe on his own, but also managed to address his teammates while saying “Love you boys” on Friday.
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, to seal the victory with a 49-yard touchdown catch from Josh 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, the 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.
On a day the Bills celebrated No. 3, and with Hamlin watching and live-tweeting from his hospital bed in Cincinnati, two touchdowns by Hines proved key.
The crowd had barely settled into its seats following a pregame ceremony honoring Hamlin when Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score.
His second put the Bills ahead for good, coming 13 seconds after Nick Folk hit a 24-yard field goal to put New England up 17-14 midway through the third quarter.
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.
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.
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.