ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Three weeks ago, they were family, bonded together by a singular and powerful cause: the well-being of Damar Hamlin.
On Jan. 2 at Cincinnati, in one of the most anticipated games of the season, the players and coaches from the Bills and Bengals hugged and knelt in prayer together when the Buffalo safety fell frighteningly into cardiac arrest after making what appeared to be a routine tackle on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.
The Bills and Bengals players and coaches made the decision together to halt the game after Hamlin went down and needed to be administered CPR on the field to save his life — regardless of whether the game would be resumed, replayed or canceled altogether, and however the postseason seeding implications may be altered.
The only thing that mattered on that night was Hamlin’s safety and recovery.
There has been much healing since that scary night, in both Buffalo and Cincinnati.
Thankfully — and perhaps miraculously — Hamlin is on what appears to be a hugely positive and steady road to recovery. Since he was released from the Cincinnati hospital, where he lay in a medically induced coma for a couple of days after the game, Hamlin has returned home to Buffalo and has been making regular visits to the Bills’ facility to see his teammates and coaches.
Though nothing has been announced, there’s at least a chance that Hamlin will be in the stadium Sunday. If that happens, the healing will take another dramatic and powerful step forward.
And though the Bills and Bengals players who were on that field together on that fateful night will forever be bonded, all of that will be placed on a back burner for three hours starting at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium, where they play each other in the AFC divisional playoff with a berth into the AFC Championship game in the balance.
The Bills had their cathartic moment when they played the Patriots in the regular-season finale at Highmark on an emotionally charged Sunday two weeks ago. Their victory in that game clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC postseason and home-field advantage for the game Sunday.
The Bills believe they’ve become strengthened by the Hamlin experience and the positive fallout that’s come with his remarkable recovery.
“I think it gives you a more sturdy foundation,’’ quarterback Josh Allen told reporters this week. “The more struggle, the more adversity that you can see over the course of the year, it just makes you stronger. We’ve been in some really weird situations this year that not a lot of teams maybe have ever gone through. Being able to have that under our belts, understand those emotions in those situations, and just try to use it to our advantage.”
It has, indeed, been a trying year in Buffalo. The area has been dealt two deadly winter storms that cost dozens of lives and disrupted the football schedule and a racist shooting at a supermarket last May that left 10 people dead. The team also endured the death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother Luke in August.
The Hamlin scare was something that could have broken Buffalo … except it’s pretty much impossible to break Buffalo, which prides itself on its relentless resilience.
Hamlin’s story struck a massive emotional chord around the country and had a profound effect on people who hadn’t even heard of him before.
“There was a rallying together,” Cincinnati center Ted Karras said. “The whole entire country was united — more unity than I’ve seen in a long time. Everybody was watching that game. That was the biggest game of the year up to that point, ‘Monday Night Football,’ the entire universe watching.
“The cities are very similar — very passionate fan bases, care about football, care about their players, very knowledgeable fan bases. I was glad to see two cities could really come together in prayer and donations and all sorts of support for the Bills organization and Damar and his family. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of Cincy travelers [at the game Sunday]. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Big playoff matchup.”
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he believes the teams “will always be connected through’’ the Hamlin experience.
“To see Damar getting healthier as time passes and see where it has ended up, there is always going to be a strong connection between those two organizations,’’ Taylor said. “And that’s a good thing.”