A column by CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Columnist
Bills fans won’t soon forget Jan. 2, 2023.
Buffalo was playing its 16th game, a Monday nighter at Cincinnati, with the season finale the following Sunday against the Patriots at Orchard Park.
The game against the Bengals was critical. Buffalo, 12-3, had a tenuous hold on the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, but Cincinnati, 11-4, could reverse that position with a victory over Buffalo with a head-to-head win and a game to go.
The Bengals held a 7-3 first-quarter lead and were embarking on another potential scoring drive when Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin completed a tackle, stood up, then toppled over in full cardiac arrest.
The next half hour became the NFL’s Story of the Year as players from both teams stood in stunned silence as medical units from each team frantically tried to save Hamlin’s life.
Bills assistant trainer Denny Kellington was credited with reviving Hamlin who, incredibly, has completely recovered and is on Buffalo’s current roster, though he hasn’t been active for a game this year. Doctors assessed that he was the victim of commotio cordis which occurs when a person is hit in the chest at a precise moment in the heart rhythm. While extremely rare, it’s supposedly the leading cause of death among young athletes, but is normally caused by a ball or puck.
The NFL, after wavering, wisely canceled the game and decided not to reschedule it as there was no impact on what teams made the playoffs.
The decision seemed to benefit the Bills as their playoff game against the Bengals, if they won their opener, would be played at Highmark Stadium. Instead, Cincinnati put a 27-10 beatdown on Buffalo at Highmark.
SUNDAY NIGHT the Bills and Bengals return to Paycor Stadium (8:20, WGR-TV, 95.7 FM, 101.1 FM, 550 AM). Cincinnati, after a 1-3 start, behind then-injured quarterback Joe Burrow, has won three straight, beating Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco. Most importantly, Burrow has returned to his NFL elite QB form over that span with eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
The Bills, at 5-3, have been an enigma. In games 2-through-4, they were dazzling, beating the Raiders, Commanders and Dolphins and averaging 41 points a game while doing it.
But they also blew the opener against the Jets at the Meadowlands, on an overtime punt return for a touchdown, no less. There was also the lackluster performance in losing to the Jaguars at London and the embarrassing defeat by the struggling Patriots in Foxboro.
The other two wins?
They were literal last-play-of-the-game survivals at Orchard Park, a should’ve-been-called holding violation in the end zone against Buffalo versus the Giants and a just-missed Hail Mary connection in the end zone against Tampa Bay.
TO DATE, the Bills are 1-3 on the road and, yes, the Jags’ loss in London was technically a “home game,” but it wasn’t played at Highmark.
Now they’re going to a city fraught with memories of Hamlin’s frightening encounter with death.
After the Bengals pounded Buffalo in the playoffs there was rampant speculation that the Bills had an emotional hangover from the incident three weeks earlier. However, that didn’t seem to effect coach Sean McDermott’s crew during a 30-point win over New England in the regular-season finale.
But this is different … a return to the actual site with the victim still on the roster, though it’s unlikely he will be active.
When asked about going back to Cincinnati and if there might be some emotional fallout, McDermott tread carefully.
“We will communicate on that (but) the biggest thing that’s in front of us is the football game … you have to keep that about the football game and what it takes to win there,” he said of revisiting the subject with the team. “We’ll discuss it but (keep it in perspective).”
BUFFALO did make three personnel moves this week.
First, the Bills signed veteran running back Leonard Fourette and placed him on the practice squad.
Then, literally at Tuesday’s trade deadline, general manager Brandon Beane sent next year’s third-round draft pick — likely compensation for the free-agent loss of middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to the Bears — to Green Bay for cornerback Rasul Douglas and a fifth-round choice.
Finally, on Wednesday, Buffalo signed free agent defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Fournette’s acquisition is interesting.
Conclusion: In some ways he seems like Latavius Murray Part Deux. He’s 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and Fournette is 6-0, 228. Both are power runners, particularly in short yardage. The only difference between them is that Murray is 33 and Fournette five years younger..
The acquisition of the 6-2, 210-pound Douglas, though 29, was a must.
Conclusion: If he’s up to speed by Sunday night he’ll start in Tre’ Devious White’s position. White, lost for the season to a torn Achilles tendon, has not been adequately replaced by either Dane Jackson or Kaiir Elam. And with the Bills set to face a string of elite quarterbacks — Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa — and pass catchers — JaMarr Chase, A.J. Brown, Travis Kelce, CeeDee Lamb, Keenan Allen and Tyreek Hill — the presence of an elite cornerback is absolutely critical.
If there was any doubt that Elam is angling to be one of the Bills’ worst all-time, first-round draft picks, this trade was it. He was virtually handed the job when White was injured and, instead, Elam’s been inactive for five of the eight games and to open a spot on the roster for Douglas, Elam was placed on injured reserve, ostensibly for an ankle injury. However, not much was made of that in previous weeks.
Linval joins Fournette on the practice squad to be activated due to need.
Conclusion: Fournette would replace Murray, should he struggle or become injured. Joseph might get his chance more quickly with DaQuan Jones lost for the season (torn pectoral muscle) and Ed Oliver has just returned from injury.
THE BILLS are mostly healthy though this week’s injury report reported linebackers A.J. Klein (back) and Baylon Spector (hamstring)are both out, leaving Buffalo with four linebackers against the Bengals: Terrel Bernard, Tyrel Dodson, Dorian Williams and special teamer Tyler Matakevich.
Cornerback Christian Benford hamstring) was listed as questionable.
Oddly, Benford, a sixth-round pick from lightly-regarded Villanova in 2022 when Elam was tabbed in the first round, has been an effective starter.
The opening line on this game was Bengals by 1½, it’s now risen to Cincinnati by three.
Bengals 27, Bills 20
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)
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