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There Will Be No Fairy Tale Ending for the Bills

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Just three weeks ago, Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field. But on Sunday, he sat in a luxurious suite at Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium and made a heart with his hands, a gesture of love for all who had done so much for him while his health was in danger.

And then Hamlin asked the Bills Mafia to get loud. Hamlin raised his palms to the sky and began to raise and lower his hands, begging the crowd to shout. Through the snowfall blur captured by CBS cameras, it looked like Hamlin was sculpting a snow angel.

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The Buffalo Bills fans came out screaming loud enough to cause the Cincinnati Bengals to make a false start. At this point, the Bengals scored a touchdown and threatened to score another goal. But now their third goal at the Bills 5-yard line was moved to the 10-yard line, and Hamlin, urging the crowd to push the Bengalis off, felt, well, like moment.

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And then Cincinnati showed that this team is cold-blooded. Joe Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase in the back of the end zone. After lengthy consideration by officials, Chase’s touchdown was called off and Cincinnati settled for a field goal. But don’t let the definition of the catch get in the way of the fact that this sequence summed up Sunday’s showdown in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

Everything was ready to turn Sunday into a fairy tale about Buffalo. Hamlin’s comeback, snowfall incessant, preseason Super Bowl favorites who survived near tragedy and then rallied around their teammate on their way to a postseason rematch against Kansas City, who eliminated Buffalo in an epic divisional playoff game last year. The script writes itself. But the Bengals tore that scenario up on Sunday. The Bengals were simply better at every turn as they knocked out the Bills 27-10 in a game that hadn’t been competitive since the early snaps.

The Bengals have crushed the Bills in every aspect of football. Cincinnati took a 14–0 lead on their first two assists, and Burrow started the game 9 of 9 with passes to six different receivers. By the end of the first quarter, the Bengals had more first downs (10) than the Bills had yards (8) and were averaging 7.3 yards per game.

Burrow played nearly flawless football, throwing 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and no passes. But these numbers don’t reflect Barrow’s performance. As CBS announcer Tony Romo repeatedly said, Burrow used a Peyton Manning-style system in which they repeatedly let Burrow line up at the start of the snap count and then adjust the play to defense before the snap. The result was havoc in both passing and running play. Cincinnati earned a ridiculous 30 first downs in 69 plays, not including kneeling down.

“Offense, defense, special teams,” Barrow said after the game. “Dominance from start to finish.”

During Qingxi’s first drive, Burrow’s elite pocket move allowed him to calmly slide past the lightning-fast defensive guard, step forward, and pass a touchdown to Chase to take the lead.

On the next trip, Barrow pretended to be Chase in the apartment, three Bill’s defenders would advance and fall on it only to throw the ball overhead at Hayden Hurst’s wide-open tight end. As Romo noted throughout the broadcast, Burrow repeatedly moved the eyes of Bill’s defenders.

In a pivotal Game 3 and 10 late in the first half, Burrow used his eyes to keep Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds glued to receiver Tyler Boyd, then turned and threw to Trenton Irvine for the first down.

Burrow already had the most playoff wins of any quarterback in Bengals history. But after winning Sunday, he is now tied for playoff wins with every other Bengals quarterback combined.

But no less important factor in the victory of “Sinsi” was its offensive line. Entering the game, the Bengals’ offensive line was considered the weakest part of the team, with three starters eliminated in that game (and center Ted Karras appeared to be playing with a first-half injury). But left tackle Jackson Karman, who made his first career start as a left tackle on his 23rd birthday, came up and deflected a blitzer on the Bengals’ first touchdown. Burrow was fired just once for 2 yards, a far cry from last postseason when he was fired with an NFL-record 19 yards during the Cincinnati Super Bowl.

The running game was dominated by Bengals. Running back Joe Mixon ran 20 times for 105 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and scored while the Bengals racked up a whopping 13 first downs. Impressively, the Bengals were able to establish a physically dominant shotgun run game. It’s a testament to that offensive line, and also to Burrow making the right calls to the Bills defense at the right moments. The Bills especially had problems with Chase running after Burrow and Mixon when they were in the shotgun and then Burrow passing to Mixon running in the opposite direction. It was as if this particular play literally and figuratively ripped the Bills defense in two different directions.

Even at the end of the game, when Billy knew that the Bengals were likely to run to exhaust time, they had no answers to the Bengals’ running game:

Cincinnati’s defense is also commendable. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s game plan was phenomenal, and he choked out an elite quarterback again in the playoffs. Basically, Buffalo had two good hits the entire game, one of which ended in a touchdown in the second quarter and the other in a field goal in the third quarter. The Bills had 11 first downs on those two discs; they only managed seven first downs on the other six possessions.

When Buffalo needed to move the ball the most in the fourth quarter, Cinsi forced a pass on downs and intercepted Josh Allen to end the game. Allen had 25 completions on 42 passes for 265 yards, no touchdowns and a desperate pick after the game was in the hand. He also had 8 carries for 26 yards and a fast count. The Cincinnati defensive line dominated, holding the Bills to 11 shots for 37 yards from Buffalo running backs while constantly putting pressure on Allen throughout the game.

It was the Bengals’ most complete game in recent weeks, if not the entire season. From start to finish, the Bengals were an A in every part of the game.

Burrow and the Bengals head to Kansas City to take on a battered Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in a rematch from last year’s AFC Championship. It is worth noting that Burrow’s Bengals never lost to the Mahomes chiefs. Cincinnati beat them twice last season (including an overtime win and a Super Bowl win) and earlier this season. The Bengals already have an advantage over the Chiefs (as of Sunday evening) despite being forced to play away at Arrowhead. Asked after the game about the unforeseen circumstances of a neutral venue for a potential Bills-Chiefs AFC championship game that was due to take place in Atlanta but has now been cancelled, Burrow didn’t hesitate.

“It’s better to send those refunds,” Barrow said.

Meanwhile, the Bills enter the off-season feeling far from glory. Last year’s loss to Kansas City was devastating but left Bills fans feeling like they were up to par with the AFC’s top players. Sunday’s loss shows how much work the Bills still have to do. This loss showed their vulnerability and the need to improve on both sides of the trenches, as well as add depth to their attacking and receiving corps behind Stephon Diggs.

“No excuses, they beat us,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said after the game. “And they have surpassed us physically.”

After the game, Bills linebacker Matt Milano said the team lacked energy. Considering that Hamlin went to the dressing room before the game and during the break, it’s possible that the Bills had this adrenaline energy but it faded during the game.

The Bills were preseason Super Bowl favorites, but there won’t be a fairy tale ending for the Bills. But since so many of their fans were looking at Damar Hamlin on Sunday, and he was actually there in the flesh, looking back, flashing that heart in his hands, the Bills had already taken their biggest win of the season even before Sunday the game started.


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