ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — As the postgame music thumped and a few players lit up Fat Bottom Betty victory cigars and everyone in the Cincinnati Bengals’ locker room marveled at the determination and utter domination they’d shown as they flipped the script on one of football’s biggest stages, cornerback Mike Hilton tried to put the moment into words.
Six-point underdogs, on the road, in the snow against the NFL’s premier snow team, the Bengals had just overwhelmed the Buffalo Bills, 27-10, at Highmark Stadium Sunday to advance to the AFC Championship game Sunday in Kansas City.
Hilton, the mini-defender whose presence had often been towering this day as he and his mates held the high-scoring Buffalo offense to its lowest output of the season, stood at his locker and nodded with reflection:
“I feel like I was in a movie out there today.
“Obviously, there’s what happened between our teams a few weeks ago and then the snow coming today, you couldn’t have written this story any better.”
The Bengals mastered the moment and the Bills, who came into the game 13-3 and were many people’s pick for the Super Bowl this year, did not. They were wobbly from the start and that wasn’t just because it was, “snowing, sleeting and icy all day,” as Bengals center Ted Karras described it.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was unflappable, completing his first nine passes for 109 yards and two quick touchdowns — 28 yards to Ja’Marr Chase and 15 yards to tight end Hayden Hurst — in the first quarter.
Up 14-0, the Bengals kept the Bills at bay the rest of the way.
Buffalo’s true blue fans — so ready to celebrate after eight heart-wrenching months in their town — had few moments where the really could cheer Sunday.
Their most heartfelt moment came late in the second quarter when the big video scoreboard atop the stadium showed a glass-fronted luxury box partly obscured by the snow showers.
Eventually you saw a red-hooded figure behind the glass. It was Damar Hamlin, the Bills’ safety who had died on the field after a hit on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins three weeks ago when the two teams met at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.
A Bills assistant trainer, performing CPR, brought him back to life as the crowd watched in anguished silence and many Bills players — and some Bengals — were reduced to tears.
The game was suspended and eventually cancelled.
Since then, Hamlin, beloved back home in McKees Rocks, Pa. outside Pittsburgh where he started a foundation to help kids in need, has made a miraculous recovery, though he still has a long way to go medically.
He showed up with his mom and little brother in the Bills pregame locker room Sunday and then, just before the half, the video board showed him standing, making a heart sign with is hands and then waving his arms upward, urging the crowd to help lift the team.
After enduring a mass shooting last spring and a December blizzard that paralyzed the city with 52 inches of snow and killed at last 49 people here — then the Hamlin saga that began Jan. 2 — all of Buffalo was hoping the Bills would usher in good times Sunday.
Hamlin reminded the fans of that and soon after one good thing finally did happen.
Bills linebacker Matt Milano jarred loose a seeming touchdown catch by Chase in the back of the end zone. It was initially ruled a score, but a review reversed the call and Cincinnati had to settle for an Evan McPherson field goal.
Credit: Joshua Bessex
Credit: Joshua Bessex
Feeding off disrespect
If the Bills were the sentimental — and may thought more skilled — favorite , the Bengals, under coach Zac Taylor are good at playing up any sleight, perceived or real, they can use to fuel their grittiness and fight.
They did that for his this game, though mostly behind closed doors before the game, Afterward though, that tactic came out in the open.
“When we started the season 0-2, a lot of people counted us out,” Hilton said of his now 13-4 team. “They thought last year (when the Bengals made the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years) was a fluke. But the guys in this locker room thought different.”
Chase felt many in the football world, including some of the NFL brass, “kept talking us down” and “disrespected” them:
“The NFL did stuff to get the Bills to the Super Bowl. They tried to make it seem like we weren’t ready,
“But we knew what we were capable of and we didn’t make a fuss. We proved them wrong.
“We just put on a show for the whole world to see.”
One Bengal after another coming from the field to the dressing room Sunday night, jibed the league and said they hoped fans would be getting refunds for the tickets being sold promoting a Buffalo-Kansas City AFC Championship game to be played in Atlanta next Sunday.
The canceled game in Cincinnati skewered home-field scenarios in the playoffs and the league had pushed Kansas City and Buffalo to sell tickets for an Atlanta title game.
Karras grinned about that and noted the flipped script:
“What an unbelievable way to take advantage of an opportunity. We came out here in the biggest game of our lives and got a dominant victory over one of the best teams in the world.
“Now they’re going on vacation and we’re going to the AFC title game in Kansas City.
“What happened here is a testament to the culture Zac has built.”
‘We’re built for this’
Taylor talked about that after the game:
“We’re built for this. You know, it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about us. We don’t care who’s favored, who’s not. We’re built for this. And we’re excited to go on the road again to Kansas City.”
Running back Joe Mixon, who topped 100 yards for only the second time this injury plagued season and rushed for 105 yards and a 1-yard touchdown on 20 carries, talked about “The Bengals Way.”
Asked what that meant, he said it’s being “physical, hungry and accountable” to your teammates.
He told how guys were studying film together on the flight over from Cincinnati and at the hotel Saturday night.
Not only were they ready for the Bills, but they also seemed far more comfortable in the snow even though several, like Karras and Chase, never had played in it.
“I never experienced snow growing up,” Chase said. “I’m from Louisiana. That’s in the South.
“I saw (snow) one time in 2006 or ‘07, but nothing like this. I never actually had a moment of playing in snow. But that was fun as hell! I’d do it again.”
The Bengals best snow moment came with 1:13 left in the game when Cincinnati’s rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt made a leaping interception of a Josh Allen desperation heave from the Bengals’ 37 yard line that was intended for Cole Beasley.
Taylor-Britt picked the ball off at the 10-yard line and his momentum carried him into a tumble to the 2-yard line.
He popped back up, rushed into the end zone and then made a long slide on his back. He was followed by several teammates, many of them ended up making snow angels.
Although some of the few Bills fans who remained booed, the Cincinnati players mostly heard cheers. Most of the crowd at game’s end were Bengals’ fans.
“Hearing ‘Who Dey!’ chants to end the day was a special moment,” Karras said
Burrow took a knee on the final two plays, Mixon hustled to the sideline, skipping joyously the whole way.
“That was definitely a big-kid moment for me,” he said. “At the end of the day we’re grown men, but I’ve been playing this game since I was 10 years old. And a moment like that you dream about as a kid.
“After the clock hit zero, to be able to run off and now be one of four teams still playing, and celebrate with my teammate after all the hard work we put in day in and day out, that’s as good as it gets.
“We’re going to celebrate this big win tonight. A lot of greats never get to be on this stage. So we’ll celebrate for 12 hours and then we’ll put it to bed and get ready for Kansas City.”
As he was talking, linebacker Germaine Pratt walked past and bellowed:
“We’re coming! We’re coming!”
Mixon laughed and nodded:
“We are comin’.
“We feel like it’s our time.”
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