ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Before this N.F.L. season began, the Buffalo Bills set a goal of winning a Super Bowl. While that is an objective shared by all teams, it was both realistic and pressing for the Bills, who believed this season’s squad had as good a chance as ever to finally deliver a championship to this region.
The Bills held fast to that mission through a brief midseason slump, long-term injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller and then Damar Hamlin’s life-threatening medical emergency during a prime-time game in early January. But on Sunday, the Bills found themselves back in a familiar place: waiting until next year.
Under a steady snowfall, the Bills’ season ended with a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who will challenge Kansas City in next weekend’s A.F.C. championship game.
The Bills struggled to slow Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense, while Bills quarterback Josh Allen couldn’t seem to get the offense into a rhythm. The Bengals were down three starters on their offensive line but it was Allen who often found himself on the run, scrambling to make plays out of scheme.
The last time these two teams were on the field together, on Jan. 2, Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after making what appeared to be a routine tackle of receiver Tee Higgins. That game was suspended in the first quarter and ultimately canceled. Since then, the Bills tried to push forward, drawing strength from the steady progress of Hamlin, who was released from the hospital on Jan. 11 and made his first public appearance at Sunday’s game.
Hamlin visited the Bills’ locker room before the game and then watched from a suite as he continues what doctors have said will be a lengthy recovery. At the two-minute mark of the first half, the stadium Jumbotron showed Hamlin. He cupped his hands into a heart symbol, then urged the crowd to cheer the defense, which was defending Burrow on the goal line.
The defense held on that series — after a Ja’Marr Chase touchdown catch was overturned on review — but that was just one of a few potential turning points for the Bills that never materialized.
The Bengals built a 14-point lead in the first quarter on two touchdown passes from Burrow to wide-open targets — Chase on the first for 28 yards and tight end Hayden Hurst on the second for 15. Burrow didn’t throw an incomplete pass on the Bengals’ first two drives. The Bills, meanwhile, opened with two three-and-out series.
The Bills finally stopped the Bengals on their third possession, when the All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano sacked Burrow on third down near midfield. When the Bills got the ball back, they marched to the end zone on a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by an Allen touchdown run on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
After the Bengals’ field goal just inside the two-minute warning of the first half pushed Cincinnati’s lead to 17-7, the Bills pulled back to within a score early in the second half on a 25-yard field goal from Tyler Bass. But from that point on, it was all Bengals, who all game sustained the momentum that eluded the Bills’ offense. Allen’s second-quarter touchdown run was the only time the Bills got into the end zone.
The Bills will look back on some missed opportunities. There was Allen’s well-thrown deep shot, which traveled more than 30 yards in the air, on a third down in the third quarter. But Bills receiver Gabe Davis couldn’t quite hold on to it. Later, midway through the fourth quarter and after Cincinnati had grown its advantage to 27-10, a Bills drive stalled deep in Bengals territory. They incurred a false start penalty that extended a third down, then failed to convert a fourth down from Cincinnati’s 16-yard line.