Following one of the most traumatic weeks in NFL history, the Buffalo Bills (12-3) will take on their AFC East rival, the New England Patriots (8-8), at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, January 8.
While it seemed highly doubtful that the Bills would be able to push through and play after Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during their Monday Night Football matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, the safety’s remarkable recovery over the past five days has reinvigorated the team.
The NFL announced on Thursday, January 5 that the Bills-Bengals matchup would officially be declared a no-contest, which has large repercussions for playoff teams in the AFC. While the Bills have already clinched their spot in the postseason, the Patriots must defeat Buffalo in Week 18 to snag the final AFC Wild Card.
If the Patriots lose to the Bills, the Patriots can still limp into the playoffs, but it’s a tall order. New England would need both the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers to lose in Week 18, and for the Jacksonville Jaguars to win, per Yahoo! Sports.
With New England’s postseason hanging in the balance, Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo referred to their final regular season matchup as a “plastic bag game” while addressing the media on Friday, and the former Super Bowl champ explained why.
“Honestly, you win and you’re in, and that’s the mentality,” Mayo said, per Boston.com. “There’s no speech or anything that a coach can give you. Either you win and you’re in the playoffs, or you lose and you go home. Plastic bag game.”
“That means if you lose, you get a big plastic trash bag,” Mayo explained, indicating that if the Patriots lose on Sunday, players need to quickly pack up their stuff to go home because their season is effectively over. “Trash bag game.”
Mayo, 36, didn’t finish his presser without delivering a heartfelt message about Hamlin’s recovery. “I just heard the great news that he’s no longer on the breathing tube. You know, he’s been in our thoughts and prayers over the last few days. I just want to say thanks to everyone involved. The training staff oftentimes — the guys who no one even knows their names — the trainers, the doctors, all hands on deck… great news today. Happy about that.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick commented on Hamlin’s medical emergency while addressing the media on Thursday. “Football is a very great and competitive game,” he said, per NESN‘s Zack Cox. “Unfortunately injuries like this can and do happen from time to time. It’s very unfortunate… Life’s bigger than this game. It’s just one of these humbling moments for all of us.”
Mayo Is Expecting an ‘Intense Environment’ in Orchard Park
Having to beat the Bills to clinch a spot in the postseason was already a massive uphill battle for New England, as quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo squad have defeated the Patriots five times over their past six matchups.
While the emotional state of the Bills players and staff was deeply concerning heading into Week 18, a video call from Hamlin’s father, Mario, along with a FaceTime from Hamlin himself on Friday has the entire franchise and city of Buffalo hyped.
The Bills Mafia attendance in Orchard Park always creates an electric atmosphere, but with tributes planned for Hamlin, the team’s athletic trainers, and emergency responders, Mayo knows it’s going to be next level in Buffalo.
“I always say going down to Buffalo is like playing in an SEC stadium,” Mayo said. “So, it’s definitely going to be tough.” But with the celebration of Hamlin’s progress at the forefront of the game, Mayo expects “an intense environment.”
The Bills are No Longer the No. 1 Seed in the AFC
With the new league rule changes, the Kansas City Chiefs edge out the Bills for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The only path for Buffalo to reclaim the top spot would be to defeat the Patriots on Sunday, January 8, and hope the Las Vegas Raiders defeat the Chiefs (13-3).
While it’s frustrating the Bills no longer control their destiny, the team’s focus, and what they consider a win, is Hamlin’s recovery. During an emotional press conference on Friday, Bills general manager Brandon Beane said that he’s not sure how the rest of the season will play out but, “This is a group of winners… I don’t know if there’s a team I’ve ever been more proud of.”
As for the vibe at Orchard Park on Sunday, “It’s going to be a celebration in life,” he said per Bills reporter Maddy Glab. “I think it’s going to be a great seat if you’ve got a ticket to come here and be a part of this atmosphere.”