CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills have been intertwined since Andy Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd for a game-winning touchdown in the 2017 regular-season finale against Baltimore, helping the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Bills fans began donating to Dalton’s foundation in gratitude for beating the Ravens that day, and eight months later, they thanked him in person with a standing ovation ahead of a preseason game in Buffalo.
A little more than two weeks ago, the Bills and Bengals organizations rekindled their unique respect for one another in how they rallied together to support of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin after he suffered cardiac arrest on the field in the first quarter of their Week 17 matchup in Cincinnati.
Now with Hamlin safely home and further recovering, the teams are back to focusing on football, and on Sunday they get a chance to see how they truly match up with even more at stake. The second-seeded Bills and third-seeded Bengals will put aside their friendly connection when they meet in an AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Highmark Stadium.
“I think these two organizations will always be connected through that (experience), the positivity that has come through it all,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “To see Damar getting healthier as time passes and see where it has ended up, there is always going to be a strong connection between those two organizations and that’s a good thing.”
Taylor said he and Bills coach Sean McDermott stayed in touch in the days immediately after Hamlin’s medical emergency, but the two have been busy since then preparing for their last two games. He already had a high opinion of McDermott before he saw how the Bills coach handled the situation with his players and wanting to be there for Hamlin, rather than finishing a football game.
McDermott had texted him in the past when good things happened for Taylor, so the two had previous connections before two weeks ago.
The Bengals weren’t sure they would see the Bills again this season but had a feeling they would have to go through Buffalo to achieve their goals. The Bills, Chiefs and Bengals had been considered the top teams in the AFC.
“It feels like two deserving teams (are facing each other),” Taylor said. “Buffalo is one of the greatest environments to play in in all of football. I’ve been there many, many times and it’s a fun environment. It’s a worthy playoff environment, and so our guys are going to be juiced up and ready to go. It should be a heck of a game.”
Cincinnati has a little extra motivation having to go on the road for this game even though the league made plans for a neutral AFC Championship game if Buffalo ends up meeting Kansas City, because the Bills would have had a shot at the No. 1 seed if they had beaten the Bengals in Week 17.
The Bengals understood the decision to cancel the game against the Bills but also could have argued a win that week would have put them as the No. 2 seed, ahead of Buffalo. The league decided that since they played the same number of games and Buffalo had one more win, it was still fair to give the Bills the home game this round.
Cincinnati was leading the Bills, 7-3, and driving near midfield with about six minutes left in the first quarter when the game was halted on Jan. 2.
“I think that’s definitely part of it — how the situation with the canceled Bills game was handled provided some motivation,” Bengals center Ted Karras said. “This is a one-game season from here on out. We want to be the champ at the end. We want to go through Buffalo.”
The regular-season matchup against the Bills was a much-anticipated one on Monday Night Football, the first meeting of Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. This one should be no different.
“It’ll be another juice game,” Bengals free safety Jessie Bates said. “We wish that it was in ‘The Jungle,’ playing in front of our incredible fans, but we’ll go (all) out in Buffalo. We tend to do well on the road late when it’s cold, so we’ll be ready. We’ll be prepared, have a great week of preparation and be ready to take them on and go to the AFC Championship.”
Buffalo fans might be a little friendlier to Bengals fans Sunday than they would have been prior to seeing how the local community showed up at UC Medical Center in support of Hamlin, offering up prayers and donations to Hamlin’s “Chasing M’s Foundation” to raise money for Toys for Tots. However, Karras still expects a hostile environment.
Karras played against the Bills twice a year the first six seasons of his career, with New England from 2016 to 2019 and again in 2021 and with Miami in 2020, and he said it was one of the most hostile places to play. His teams went 8-4 against the Bills during those matchups, but only one of those losses was in Buffalo.
“I think there was a rallying together,” Karras said. “I think the whole entre country was united, more unity than I’ve seen in a long time. Everybody was watching that game. That was the biggest game of the year up to that point, Monday Night Football, the entire universe watching. The cities are very similar, very passionate fan bases, care about football, care about their players. Very knowledgeable fan bases. I was glad to see two cities could really come together in prayer and donations and all sorts of support for the Bills organization and Damar and his family. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of Cincy travelers. ... “It’s going to be a lot of fun. Big playoff matchup.”
Bengals at Bills, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7