ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Trepidation surrounded the first tackle.
After all, the last tackle the Buffalo Bills had witnessed was followed immediately by their teammate’s collapse; by safety Damar Hamlin slipping into an on-field cardiac arrest.
So when the Bills lined up to receive the opening kickoff, hosting the New England Patriots in their regular-season finale Sunday, running back Nyheim Hines did what he always does on returns: He tried to avoid any tackles. This time, he succeeded.
Hines caught the kick in the middle of his own 4-yard line, juking briefly left before cutting at an angle toward the right. Then, Hines sprinted up the right sideline. And he sprinted. And with his arms wide open, a mere 14 seconds into the game, he arrived in the end zone.
From his Cincinnati hospital bed, Hamlin tweeted: “OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
From the Bills sideline, quarterback Josh Allen grasped either side of his helmet and shook his head in similar belief. He didn’t just think “oh my bleeping God.”
“I was going around with my teammates and saying: ‘God’s real,’” Allen said. “I can’t remember a play that touched me like that, I don’t think, in my life. So it’s probably No. 1.
“It was spiritual, it really was. Bone-chilling.”
So much of the Bills’ 35-23 win over the Patriots was.
Orchard Park and the neighborhoods surrounding Highmark Stadium felt different long before kickoff. Fans sported an array of Hamlin jerseys and gear, the number “3” that adorns Hamlin’s jersey perhaps setting a new town record for ubiquity and diversity of material.
Pregame rituals recognized the medical and athletic training staff members who helped to save Hamlin's life via CPR and defibrillation six days earlier. Video boards announced “LOVE FOR DAMAR,” the “3” in each of the field’s 30-yard-line markers outlined in a dark blue for emphasis.
The NFL had announced its plans to create moments to process and heal from trauma; moments to celebrate Hamlin’s neurologic and aerobic progress while praying for the recovery milestones not yet crossed. All was always expected pregame. But the eerie in-game messages Bills players felt?
“Crazy,” Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said, “but that’s how the man above works.”
‘Couldn’t have scripted it any better’
How exactly did God, or the football gods, or the energy in the world (depending on the Bills player you spoke with) work?
Honoring teammate No. 3, the Bills' offense scored three touchdowns.
The Bills' defense swiped three interceptions.
And the Bills’ special teams unit collaborated to block for and score on a kick-return touchdown for the first time in three years and three months. (In quarter No. 3, Hines would score another one, tracking 101 yards, becoming just the 11th NFL player ever to return two kick touchdowns in a game.)
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better, man,” Allen said. “Emotional, just the way it happened.”
The Bills took the game’s initial lead before the Patriots tied the game in the second quarter and went ahead briefly in the third. Hines’ second return touchdown gave the Bills a lead with 6:53 to play in the third quarter and the Patriots wouldn’t again manage to keep pace.
The performance was far from pristine. The Bills lost two fumbles and threw for an interception to tally, you guessed it, three giveaways. But Allen’s final two touchdowns came on massive gains.
Bills receiver John Brown outran his defender to the tune of a 42-yard touchdown, Allen then flinging a seemingly effortless 49-yard touchdown to Pro Bowl receiver Stefon Diggs. Brown, who rejoined the Bills on Nov. 26 after going unsigned for the bulk of the 2022 season, had not scored a touchdown in over two years. So what did he do with the ball he delivered home?
He carried it to a colleague who was vital to Hamlin, in the words of University of Cincinnati Medical Center describing the 24-year-old’s restored neurologic function, coming “home.”
Brown gave his ball to Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington — the man responsible for administering timely CPR to Hamlin.
“You talk about the people quotient and we’ve got good people and our players are guys that do things the right way,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. “That was a difficult, difficult play to make and he made it. And then to have the wherewithal to go to the sideline 15 seconds later and hand the ball to the trainer? I think [that] says a lot about who he is.”
Bills WR John Brown caught a 42-yard, diving touchdown–his first touchdown in 2 years and 5 days.
Then, he gave the game ball to Bills trainer Denny Kellington, who performed CPR on Damar Hamlin last week (via @NFL):pic.twitter.com/aHovcz383r
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 8, 2023
In the postgame locker room, too, game balls were awarded intentionally — to the athletic training staff and to Hamlin, who FaceTimed into the postgame huddle.
“Bills on three, Bills on me,” Hamlin’s voice broke down the team huddle. “One, two, three.”
It wasn’t the first or last time teammates heard from him this weekend.
‘I just want to hug the s*** out of him’
Bills starting cornerback Tre’Davious White clutched his face with emotion as he shared the conversation.
White had longed for something, anything, to assuage the trauma of the week, the cardiac arrest he “can’t unsee,” the mind-dominating memories from which he longed to find respite.
“From the hit, to him getting up, to him falling,” White narrated the clip now engraved in his memory. “Every time I close my eyes, it replays. I try watching TV and every time the TV goes to commercial, it's just the only thing that comes to my mind, just the vision of that.
“It's been a tough week for our whole team. But it's not about us right now. It's about Damar and his family, man.”
Hamlin seemed to disregard the directive to care for himself. He succeeded in redirecting White’s vision to another screen. Because in the middle of the night — roughly 24 hours after the removal of his breathing tube and less than 24 hours after he FaceTimed into the team meeting to share “I love you, boys” — Hamlin texted teammates.
The message flashed across White’s phone at 2:31 a.m.
"I’m thinking about y’all. I’m sorry that I did that to y’all."
“He's one of the most resilient, honest and just pure people that I've met,” White said. “It just shows what type of person he is, for him to check on us. And hopefully we can just get him back.
“I just want to hug the s*** out of him.”
McDermott said he wasn’t surprised an “unselfish” player like Hamlin was worrying about his teammates even as Hamlin remained in critical condition himself. But after switching topics, McDermott said he wanted to address Hamlin’s message again.
“Damar should not — in no way, shape or form — feel bad or apologize for him putting his teammates through this,” McDermott said. “I think we would all agree that God's hand is in this and it has been in it from the first moment.
“When you watch how, at times, divided we can be as a country and a world, I think the thing we all recognized this week was when people can put love first and people first and come together, how powerful this country and this world can be for the good. The amount of love that people can have for one another.
“Maybe it took a sporting event for that to happen. But I think that's a great example to all of us, and we should continue with that moving forward.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein