Just three weeks ago, Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field. But on Sunday, there he was, sitting in a luxury suite in Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium, making a heart with his hands—a gesture of love to everyone who had shown so much to him while his health was in jeopardy.
And then Hamlin asked Bills Mafia to get loud. Hamlin held his palms to the sky and started raising his arms up and down, imploring the crowd to scream. Through the blur of the snowfall captured by CBS cameras, it looked like Hamlin was making a snow angel.
Buffalo Bills fans delivered, screaming loud enough to force the Cincinnati Bengals into a false start. At that point, the Bengals were up by a touchdown and threatening to score another. But now their third-and-goal at the Bills 5-yard line had been pushed back to the 10, and Hamlin evoking the crowd to push the Bengals back felt like, well, a moment.
And then Cincinnati showed that this team is cold-blooded. Joe Burrow delivered a strike to Ja’Marr Chase in the back of the end zone. After a lengthy officials’ review, Chase’s touchdown catch was overturned, and Cincinnati settled for a field goal. But don’t let the definition of a catch get in the way of the fact that this sequence summed up Sunday’s showdown in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
Everything set up Sunday to be a Buffalo fairy tale. Hamlin’s return, the steady snowfall, the preseason Super Bowl favorites persevering through near tragedy, then rallying around their teammate en route to a postseason rematch against Kansas City, who eliminated Buffalo in an epic divisional-round playoff game last year. The script writes itself. But the Bengals tore up that script on Sunday. At every turn, the Bengals were just better as they blew out the Bills 27-10 in a game that was not competitive from the opening snaps.
The Bengals shredded the Bills in every facet of football. Cincinnati jumped to a 14-0 lead on its first two drives, with Burrow starting 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 play.
Burrow played nearly flawless football, completing 23 of 36 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. But those numbers fail to capture Burrow’s performance. As CBS announcer Tony Romo repeatedly said, Burrow was running a Peyton Manning–esque system in which they were repeatedly allowing Burrow to line up early in the snap count, then adjusting the play to the defense before the snap. The result was devastation in both the passing and running games. Cincinnati gained a ridiculous 30 first downs on 69 plays, excluding kneel downs.
“Offense, defense, special teams,” Burrow said after the game. “Domination from start to finish.”
On Cincy’s first drive, Burrow’s elite pocket movement allowed him to calmly glide past a blitzing defensive back, step up, and float a touchdown pass to Chase to take an early lead.
On the next drive, Burrow pump-faked to Chase in the flat, with three Bills defenders stepping up and falling for it, only to toss a ball over their heads to wide-open tight end Hayden Hurst. As Romo noted throughout the broadcast, Burrow repeatedly moved Bills defenders with his eyes.
On a key third-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 ripped a throw to Trenton Irwin for a first down.
Talked this week about how the Bills needed to disguise their coverages to confuse Burrow after the snap, but it's not that simple. Bills show single-high and then play two-high after the snap. Burrow goes to the space vacated by the retreating safety and hits Irwin. pic.twitter.com/1pCKcO46pw— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 22, 2023
Burrow already had the most playoff wins of any quarterback in Bengals history. But after Sunday’s win, he is now tied in playoff wins with every other Bengals quarterback combined.
But just as key to Cincy’s victory was its offensive line. Entering the game, the Bengals offensive line was considered the weakest part of the team, with three starters out for this game (and center Ted Karras appeared to play through an injury suffered during the first half). But left tackle Jackson Carman, making his first career start at left tackle on his 23rd birthday, stepped up and deflected a blitzer on the Bengals’ first touchdown. Burrow was sacked just once for 2 yards, a far cry from last postseason, when he was sacked an NFL-record 19 times during Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run.
In the running game, the Bengals dominated. Joe Mixon rushed 20 times for 105 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and a score, while the Bengals racked up a whopping 13 rushing first downs. Impressively, the Bengals were able to establish a physically dominant running game from the shotgun. That’s a testament to the offensive line, as well as Burrow making the right calls against the Bills defense in the right moments. The Bills especially had trouble with Chase running in motion behind Burrow and Mixon while they were in shotgun, then Burrow handing off to Mixon running in the opposite direction. It’s as if this specific play were literally and figuratively ripping the Bills defense in two different directions.
Even late in the game, when the Bills knew the Bengals were more likely to run the ball to drain the clock, they had no answers for the Bengals running game:
Cincinnati’s defense deserves credit, too. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s game plan was phenomenal, once again stifling an elite quarterback in the playoffs. Buffalo essentially had two good drives in the entire game: one ending with a touchdown in the second quarter, and the other with a field goal in the third quarter. The Bills had 11 first downs on those two drives; they managed just seven total first downs on their other six possessions.
When Buffalo needed to move the ball most in the fourth quarter, Cincy forced a turnover on downs and intercepted Josh Allen to effectively end the game. Allen was held to 25 completions on 42 passes for 265 yards, no touchdowns, and a desperation pick after the game was in hand. He also had eight carries for 26 yards and a rushing score. Cincinnati’s defensive line dominated, holding the Bills to 13 rushes for 39 yards from Buffalo’s running backs, while consistently pressuring Allen throughout the game.
This was the most complete game the Bengals have played in weeks, if not all season. From start to finish, the Bengals were A-plus in every part of the game.
Burrow and the Bengals now head to Kansas City to take on a banged-up Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. It’s worth noting that Burrow’s Bengals have never lost to Mahomes’s Chiefs. Cincinnati beat them twice last season (including the overtime win to advance to the Super Bowl) and again earlier this season. The Bengals open as just a 1.5-point underdog (as of Sunday night) despite being forced to play on the road in Arrowhead. Asked after the game about the neutral-site contingency for the potential Bills-Chiefs AFC championship game, which was set to be in Atlanta but is now canceled, Burrow did not hesitate.
“Better send those refunds,” Burrow said.
Meanwhile, the Bills head into their offseason feeling further from glory. Last year’s loss to Kansas City was devastating, but made Bills fans feel they were on par with the AFC’s best. Sunday’s loss shows just how much work the Bills still have to do. This loss revealed their vulnerabilities, and the need to improve on both sides of the trenches and add depth to their rushing and receiving corps behind Stefon Diggs.
“No excuses, they beat us,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said after the game. “And they out-physicaled us.”
After the game, Bills linebacker Matt Milano said the team lacked energy. Considering Hamlin visited the locker room before the game and during halftime, it’s also possible the Bills had that adrenaline energy, but it waned during the game.
There will be no fairy tale ending for these Bills. But with so many of their fans on Sunday looking up at Damar Hamlin, and him actually being there in the flesh looking back, flashing that heart with his hands, the Bills already got their biggest win of the season before Sunday’s game even kicked off.