ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — For the past two weeks, the Buffalo Bills have tried to carry on, even when doing so felt infeasible. Since Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field on Jan. 2 after going into cardiac arrest, the Bills have played two more games, each time with something on the line.
After a 34-31 win on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round of the N.F.L. playoffs, the Bills will play on.
As they have pushed forward, they have been buoyed by the steady progress that Hamlin has made. When they took the field Sunday, finally under sunny skies, they did so under the best circumstances since Hamlin’s medical emergency in a game against the Bengals. After a week in an intensive care unit in Cincinnati and two more days in a Buffalo hospital, Hamlin was able to watch Sunday’s game at home.
“Supporting from home as I focus on my recovery,” Hamlin wrote in a social media post shortly before the game. “Nothing I want more than to be out there with them!”
In some ways, Sunday’s game had the typical N.F.L. playoff atmosphere, with signs taunting the rival Dolphins intermingled with those supporting Hamlin. It did not start with the same magic as the previous week’s game, when, on the first play since Hamlin’s collapse, Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Despite being a double-digit favorite and jumping out to a 17-0 lead, the Bills didn’t close out the win until the final minutes of a game that lasted nearly four hours — making it the third-longest playoff game that did not involve overtime, according to the N.F.L.
This game was decided by the same margin as the last time these A.F.C. East rivals met, in December. But the Dolphins were without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who stayed home in South Florida after suffering his second diagnosed concussion of the season during a Christmas Day game. Miami also did not have its leading rusher, Raheem Mostert, and receiver Jaylen Waddle injured a shoulder during the game.
“It doesn’t matter how we win, it’s if we win,” said Bills quarterback Josh Allen, whose up-and-down individual performance was emblematic of the team’s showing. Allen threw three touchdown passes but also turned the ball over three times, which allowed the Dolphins to claw their way back into the game.
Last week, the Bills cleared the emotional hurdle of playing their first game since Hamlin was taken off the field in an ambulance. This week’s challenge, though — and the challenges awaiting them for the rest of their postseason run — should not be underestimated. The playoffs are an exhausting gantlet even in the best of circumstances, let alone for players who witnessed a teammate fight for his life during a nationally televised event.
Hamlin was well enough to visit the team facility Saturday afternoon during the team’s walk-through. Coach Sean McDermott said Hamlin wanted to keep a low profile so as not to distract the team. He sat in the far end zone as his teammates went through their final game preparations. But everyone wanted to greet him.
Matt Milano, the Bills’ All-Pro linebacker, posted to social media a photo of Hamlin smiling and joining hands with Dean Marlowe, the safety who replaced him in the starting lineup. Tre’Davious White, one of Hamlin’s closest friends on the team, got the hug he’d been waiting for since Hamlin collapsed.
“It lifted our spirits, for sure. It gave us a lot of juice,” White said. “To see him, and just to see him walk, and just to see him smile — it was a great day.”
Early on, the Dolphins looked overmatched. On the Bills’ second drive, receiver Stefon Diggs beat Miami cornerback Xavien Howard downfield on a 52-yard catch deep in Dolphins territory. Then Dawson Knox caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Allen in the same corner of the end zone where the Bills legend Fred Jackson had led a pregame “Let’s Go Buffalo!” chant while wearing Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey.
Two plays later, Marlowe intercepted Skylar Thompson, a third-string quarterback who started for Miami, helping the Bills build their early lead. Marlowe admitted after the game that he was out of position on the play, but that his instincts kicked in.
Miami erased the Bills’ early lead thanks in part to two interceptions of Allen. Early in the third quarter, the Dolphins took a 24-20 lead on an Allen fumble. Safety Eric Rowe came around the end of the Bills’ line unblocked and jarred the ball loose, then defensive tackle Zach Sieler recovered it for a touchdown.
A turning point for Buffalo came midway through the third quarter when Bills safety Kaiir Elam intercepted Thompson, who was backed up in his own end zone. The Bills scored off that turnover and followed with another score, both on touchdown passes, Allen’s second and third of the game.
The Dolphins stayed in it nearly until the end. Allen credited the crowd noise for forcing a delay-of-game penalty that extended a critical fourth down for Miami just outside the two-minute warning. It was Elam again who broke up Thompson’s final pass, giving the Bills the chance to kneel out the clock after securing a final first down.
What the Bills have experienced the last two weeks is not the usual kind of adversity that athletes pride themselves on overcoming. They’re finding ways to push ahead and to keep chasing what they set out to do at the start of the season.
“We set goals at the beginning of the year, and we’ve got one goal in mind, and that’s to win a world championship,” Allen said.