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 against the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round on Sunday, the team will play on.
As they push forward, the Bills have been buoyed by the steady progress their teammate has made. When they took the field on 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 began. “Nothing I want more than to be out there with them!”
On Saturday, Matt Milano, the Bills’ All-Pro linebacker, posted to social media a photo that appeared to show Hamlin visiting the team facilities for the first time since his collapse. Hamlin was smiling and joining hands with Dean Marlowe, the player who replaced him in the starting lineup. In the game’s first quarter, Marlowe intercepted Dolphins quarterback Skylar Thompson, helping the Bills build an early 17-0 lead.
More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse
- In His Hometown: As the news about Damar Hamlin’s recovery has become more hopeful, anguish has turned to “happy tears” in the tight-knit Pennsylvania borough where he grew up.
- Emergency Response: When Mr. Hamlin’s heart stopped, medical personnel could be heard making clear the severity of his condition and the efforts to keep him alive. Listen to the audio.
- Who Told Players to Warm Up?: N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t say who, if anyone, ordered players back on the field after Mr. Hamlin collapsed. The decision has sparked criticism from the players’ union.
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 — cannot 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.
In some ways, Sunday’s game felt like more of a typical playoff atmosphere, with signs taunting the rival Dolphins intermingled with those showing support for Hamlin. It did not start with quite the same magic as the previous week, when, on the first play since Hamlin’s collapse, Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
The Bills were double-digit favorites for this wild-card matchup against a team they had beaten by only 3 points nearly a month ago. But the last time these A.F.C. East division opponents met, Tua Tagovailoa was the Dolphins’ starting quarterback. Tagovailoa did not make the trip to upstate New York on Sunday, sitting out his third game since suffering his second diagnosed concussion of the season, after slamming his head against the turf during a Christmas Day game against the Green Bay Packers.
But even with Thompson, their third-string quarterback, at the helm, and with leading rusher Raheem Mostert out and receiver Jaylen Waddle injured during the game, the Dolphins mounted a strong challenge against the Bills.
Early on, the Dolphins looked overmatched. On the Bills’ second drive, receiver Stefon Diggs beat top Miami cornerback Xavien Howard downfield on a 52-yard catch deep in Dolphins territory. Then, Dawson Knox caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Josh Allen in the same corner of the end zone where Bills legend Fred Jackson had led a pregame “Let’s Go Buffalo!” chant, wearing Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey.
Marlowe’s interception followed two plays later.
But Miami erased the Bills’ early lead thanks in part to two interceptions of Allen, and early in the third quarter, the Dolphins took a 24-20 lead on another Allen turnover. 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 touchdown, Allen’s second and third of the game.
Allen finished with 352 passing yards on a 23 of 39 performance.
The Dolphins stayed in it nearly until the end. After Miami failed to convert a fourth down at midfield just outside the two-minute warning, the Bills finally secured the win, albeit anticlimactically. Buffalo ran the ball twice to set up a third-and-7 run, and after a lengthy review, officials upheld the spot for a first down that allowed the Bills to kneel out the clock.