Bills, Bengals focus on playing with Hamlin home, recovering

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Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott reacts during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Damar Hamlin is back on his feet, and that’s uplifting enough in allowing coach Sean McDermott and the Buffalo Bills to focus on their immediate future rather than an emotional past in preparing to host the Cincinnati Bengals in an AFC divisional playoff on Sunday.

In some three weeks time, the Bills — and the Bengals for that matter, too —- have gone from having their game canceled after Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and needing to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati, to being consoled by the safety’s remarkable recovery.

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“I think the guys are in a good spot,” McDermott said on Wednesday in noting Hamlin has made regular visits to the Bills facility this week.

“As he continues to improve, I think that certainly helps,” McDermott added. “That experience, we’ll carry with us, and there’s a challenge to that. But there’s also a lot of good that came from that. And I think right now, we need to focus on the positives.”

The positives are numerous, and start with Hamlin back home a week after being released from the hospital. There’s also the outpouring of support Hamlin received in the wake of his sudden collapse.

And McDermott believes the passing of time — and the chance to return to the field to play the following two weekends — helped ease whatever emotional residue he and his players felt.

“I shared this with my kids on Sunday after the New England game because that’s when I had a chance to slow down,” McDermott said, following a season-ending 35-23 win over the Patriots two weeks ago.

“When you can go through your life 48 years and not really have an experience like that, and then that happens, you know that God’s real,” he added. “And you know that there’s power in prayer and miracles do happen.”

McDermott said Hamlin is not attending team meetings, but taking what he called “a baby step at time” in re-establishing a normal routine by “just kind of dipping his toe back in here and getting on the road to just getting back to himself.”

The mood this week in Cincinnati was similarly upbeat after the Bengals were also left stunned by the sight of Hamlin collapsing after making what appeared to be a routine tackle of receiver Tee Higgins in the first quarter.

“To see Damar getting healthier as time passes and see where it ended up, there is always going to be a strong connection between these two organizations, and that’s a good thing,” coach Zac Taylor.

Now it’s a matter of two teams who bonded on the field and in the locker rooms in a time of crisis by agreeing the Week 17 game could not proceed, essentially picking up where they left off. Rather than having the AFC’s top-seed hanging in the balance as it was supposed to be on Jan. 2, the stakes are even higher.

“It means there’s a ticket to the AFC championship on the line. That’s what this game means, and I don’t think there’s anything more that needs to be said about that,” Bengals center Ted Karras said. “It was shocking circumstances that happened when they were here. I’m glad everything worked out great. ... Now it’s a win or go home scenario.”

It’s a little more personal for the Bills, but center Mitch Morse believes the team can move on.

“Exponentially, yeah, it helps. There’s a lot of reprieve from seeing him and carrying conversations,” Morse said of Hamlin’s interactions with his teammates. “I think a few guys are still coming down emotionally, like catching up on their rest and stuff. For me, personally, I can only speak for myself, it’s subsided a bit.”

Bills safety Jordan Poyer is looking forward to the challenge.

“I don’t think it should be any different than any other game that we’ve been in,” Poyer said. “Two really good teams that want to win. It’s the playoffs. And so we’re expecting a really great atmosphere, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”

The one issue facing both teams involves game-planning, and whether to go with a similar approach as three weeks ago. The Bills only had one possession, which ended with a field goal. The Bengals, who led 7-3 on Joe Burrow’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd, were on their second offensive series and led 7-3 when the game was called off.

“I think you’ve got to be careful about digging too much, trying to uncover this or that, because we spent a lot of time prior to our last game,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You have to be carful of over-thinking it, over-analyzing it giving the players too much, and you end up not playing your best football.”


AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati contributed to this report.


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