By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – The NFL regular season reached an emotional climax on Sunday as the Buffalo Bills, inspired by Damar Hamlin, who is recovering from a cardiac arrest suffered during a game last week, beat the New England Patriots 35-23.
With 19 teams still in the postseason hunt entering the final weekend, there was no shortage of gridiron suspense unfolding across the United States.
But the emotional epicentre was Orchard Park, New York, and a seething Highmark Stadium, where the Bills and their fans led a league-wide tribute in support of Hamlin, the 24-year-old safety who collapsed after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2.
Hamlin, whose heartbeat was restored on the field, spent most of the week on a ventilator in a Cincinnati hospital intensive care unit, his fight captivating the sporting world.
At every stadium before kickoff there was an announcement acknowledging Hamlin and the first responders and medical caregivers.
Players wore hats and warmup gear with Hamlin’s number 3 on them, and fans held homemade signs offering love and prayers.
But the Bills that provided Hamlin with the best tribute of all, harnessing their emotions to secure a victory and the AFC second seed.
With the stadium already crackling with energy, the game got off to an explosive start when Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, sending the sold-out crowd into a frenzy.
Hines returned another kickoff for a touchdown in the third quarter, giving the Bills a 21-17 lead they would never surrender ending the Patriots chances of reaching the playoffs.
“We just wanted to come out and play free, play loose, play for (Damar),” said Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who also threw three touchdown passes. “The first kickoff, you couldn’t have scripted it any better. That one was pretty emotional … it was spiritual.”
Buffalo will play host to the Miami Dolphins, who returned to the postseason for the first time in six years after Jason Sanders kicked three fields, including a 50-yarder with 18 seconds to play, in a 11-6 win over the New York Jets.
The Kansas City Chiefs secured the number one seed and a first-round bye when they beat the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday.
Cincinnati clinched the AFC third seed, taming the Baltimore Ravens 27-16 to set up a wildcard rematch between the North division rivals next week.
The other AFC wildcard will have the South Division champion Jacksonville Jaguars at home against the Los Angeles Chargers, who closed out their regular season with a 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos.
In the NFC, quarterback Jalen Hurts returned from injury and led the Philadelphia Eagles past the New York Giants 22-16 for a franchise record 14 wins and the number one seed.
Despite the loss, the Giants also qualify for the postseason, moving on to the wildcard, where they will face the Minnesota Vikings.
The Dallas Cowboys also move on to the playoffs on a losing note, falling 26-6 to the Washington Commanders.
The Cowboys will face NFC South division champions Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were 30-17 losers to the Atlanta Falcons.
The only matchup still to be decided is who will take on the second seeded San Francisco 49ers, who head into the postseason riding a 10-game winning streak after dropping the Arizona Cardinals 38-13.
San Francisco will meet either the Green Bay Packers or the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks kept their playoff hopes alive when Jason Myers connected on a 32-yard field goal, sealing a 19-16 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
Green Bay can snatch the last berth with a win while the Seahawks get the spot if the Lions can beat the Packers.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Gerry Doyle)