ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals have put a big wrench in the long-awaited travel plans of the Buffalo Bills, their fans and possibly even the NFL front office.
Barrow threw two touchdown passes and Cincinnati’s defense swarmed Josh Allen on a snow-covered field in Sunday’s 27-10 victory to send the Bengals to the AFC Championship for the second straight year.
And it will again be in Kansas City, not Atlanta, a neutral site where the game would have been played had Buffalo beaten Cincinnati.
“You better send those refunds,” Burrow said, referring to the roughly 50,000 tickets already sold for a game that will never be played.
“See you in Atlanta,” one Bengals player scathingly yelled as the team walked into the locker room, where cornerback Eli Apple and several teammates were giving interviews while smoking cigars.
The Bengals entered the game already feeling disrespected when the NFL went on sale for a potential game in Atlanta contingent on the Bills and Chiefs winning this weekend.
The league decided on its first-ever neutral seeding for the conference championship because the Bills (13-3) finished the season a half-game behind the Chiefs (14-3) after their game at Cincinnati was canceled on Jan. 2 when the Bills safety . Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field.
Hamlin’s inspirational presence watching the game from the end zone wasn’t enough to spark Bill.
Instead, it was “Joe Cool” who showed poise while playing during a long snowfall.
Burrow completed his first nine passes for 105 yards as Cincinnati took a 14-0 lead after its first two possessions. Ja’Mar Chase opened the scoring with a 28-yard TD 3:20 into the game, followed by Barrow’s 15-yard TD to Hayden Hurst eight minutes later. Joe Mixon had a 1-yard field goal and Evan McPherson made field goals of 20 and 28 yards in a game the Bengals never trailed.
“The bigger the moment, the calmer he gets,” Bengals coach Zach Taylor said of the Bears, who improved their playoff record to 5-1. “Our guys believe. They walk around the field, ready to attack.”
For the first time in franchise history, Cincinnati has reached back-to-back AFC Championship games and will be preparing for a rematch of last year’s title game. The Bengals defeated Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs 27-24 to advance to last year’s Super Bowl, which they lost to the Los Angeles Rams.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Burrow, who went 23-of-36 for 242 yards on Sunday. “Two of the best guys in the league, two of the best teams in the league, great defense, great overall teams, great coaches.”
Cincinnati has won the last three meetings against Kansas City, including a 27-24 victory last month. The Chiefs are making their fifth straight AFC Championship Game appearance after beating Jacksonville 27-20 on Saturday.
The Bills’ playoff streak ended in the divisional round for the second straight season, including a 42-36 overtime loss to Kansas City last year.
Bills receiver Stefon Diggs was so upset that he was seen walking out of the locker room with most of his gear shortly after the game ended before a teammate talked him into returning.
“He’s a competitive guy. What makes him good is what you’ve seen,” coach Sean McDermott said of Diggs. “It hurts. I wouldn’t want a boyfriend who wouldn’t be hurt. We put everything on the line and it wasn’t enough tonight.”
It was a rough ride for the Bills, who opened the season with Super Bowl aspirations and eventually ran out of emotional and physical gas. In addition to the stunning spectacle of Hamlin’s collapse, the Bills’ schedule was twice disrupted by severe winter storms.
Injuries also played their part. The Bills’ pass rush, which was without Von Miller because he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, created very little pressure on a Bengals offensive line that was missing three starters to injuries.
“We were expecting their best shot and they came out and hit us,” said Allen, who was 25-of-42 for 265 yards and a 1-yard score. “We just didn’t have it today.”
The Bengals scrambled in their running attack to keep the Bills off balance in a first half in which Cincinnati outgained Buffalo in total yards 274-135 and 412-325 overall. Mixon’s 105 rushing yards were 1 less than the Bengals combined for in their last two games, both against Baltimore.
“Domination from start to finish,” Burrow added. “This is what we expected. The work is not finished.”
The Bengals held one of the NFL’s best offenses to at least 10 points on the season. And the unit got a chance to celebrate, making the Snow Angels in the end zone after Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Allen’s goal-line attempt, essentially ending the game with 62 seconds left.
Hamlin was wheeled into the stadium in a security car and taken straight to the Bills’ locker room about an hour before kickoff. Later, his mother Nina and younger brother Damir joined him. He watched the game from a suite in one end zone and was pictured on the video board after the 2-minute warning in the first half as Cincinnati scored a second down on Buffalo’s 5th.
Hamlin raised his hands in his number to cheers before making a heart sign with his hands. The Bills limited the Bengals to a field goal and trailed 17-7 at the half.
“We’ll be back,” Hamlin tweeted hours after the game. “Don’t even trip.”