With recuperating Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin in attendance to provide an emotional lift to his team, the No. 3 seed Cincinnati Bengals didn’t agree to go along with the script. Playing on the road in snowy Orchard Park, New York, they defeated the Bills 27-10 in a divisional matchup and will now take on the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday (6:30 p.m.) in the AFC Championship Game. It will be a rematch of last season’s AFC championship, when the Bengals topped the Chiefs in Kansas City by 27-24 in overtime.
If the Bengals are going to get back to the Super Bowl for the second straight season, they’ll have to win at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City again. The Chiefs will be playing in the AFC championship for the fifth consecutive season.
“It’s going to be a fun one,” said Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. “Two of the top guys in the league”—speaking of himself and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes—“two of the top teams in the league, great defenses, great overall teams, great coaches.” The Chiefs and Bengals met this season in Week 13 in Cincinnati. The Bengals also took that game, 27-24.
Hamlin, who had to be resuscitated twice, once on the field, on January 2 after he went into cardiac arrest resulting from a collision with Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins in a game that was canceled after the shocking incident, provided inspiration to fans and players. His story was shared around the world and millions of dollars were donated to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation in the days after he was hospitalized in critical condition.
The home crowd at Highmark Stadium gave him a warm and loud welcome when he appeared on a big screen. But the Bengals were ready to defend their AFC title, took an early 14-0 lead and never gave it up. “Obviously, we wanted to play for him,” said Bills quarterback Josh Allen of Hamlim. “We just ran into a team that played better than us tonight.”
Allen, who was 25-42 for 265 yards and one interception, was outplayed by Bengals QB Joe Burrow, who was 23-36 242 yards, two TDs and no turnovers. The Bengals defense also stopped Allen from hurting them with his running ability, holding him to 26 yards on eight carries.
Kansas City was able to win Sunday against the No. 4 seed Jacksonville Jaguars despite Mahomes suffering a high right ankle sprain in the first quarter that sidelined him for much of the first half. He was replaced by backup Chad Henne, who came in and threw his first career playoff touchdown on his first drive, a 1-yard pass to tight end Travis Kelce that extended the Chiefs’ lead to 17-7 with 3:54 left. A Jaguars field goal made the score 17-10 at halftime.
Mahomes was forced to go to the locker room by Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and medical staff for evaluation before the end of the second quarter. He returned to the field in the third with his ankle taped. “I did not want to go, and they kind of gave me the ultimatum that I wasn’t going back in unless I went in there,” Mahomes explained. “It’s going to take a lot to keep me out of a football game.”
Before he was pulled, Mahomes was 12-15 for 84 yards. He finished the day 22-30 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s a credit to the guys around me,” he said. “… Guys made plays around me. That’s what a great team does.”