ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Joe Mixon and the Cincinnati Bengals feel disrespected. Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills have plenty to motivate them — starting with safety Damar Hamlin’s remarkable recovery — in a season of overcoming adversity.
Two teams that bonded three weeks ago in Cincinnati in deciding their since-canceled game could not proceed after Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and needed to be resuscitated on the field have much to prove in an AFC divisional-round playoff showdown in Buffalo on Sunday.
For the Bills, the mere sight of Hamlin making regular visits to their facility this week was uplifting. What’s more, the Bills believe they’re battle-tested and capable of surmounting any remaining obstacles to achieve their preseason Super Bowl aspirations.
“I think it gives you a more sturdy foundation. The more struggle, the more adversity that you can see over the course of the year, it just makes you stronger,” Allen said. “We’ve been in some really weird situations this year that not a lot of teams maybe have ever gone through. Being able to have that under our belts, understand those emotions in those situations, and just try to use it to our advantage.”
The Bills have weathered two winter storms that disrupted their schedule, mourned the death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother Luke in August, and rallied to their community’s aid in the aftermath of a racist shooting that left 10 Black people dead at a Buffalo supermarket in May.
Hamlin’s collapse and recovery is but the latest — and most personal.
In Cincinnati, Mixon might speak for all the Bengals in expressing his unhappiness over his team getting the short end of the stick from the NFL.
Already annoyed over the Bengals being placed at a disadvantage to finish higher than the AFC’s third seed, Mixon added another chip to his broad shoulders this week once the NFL began selling tickets for a potential Bills-Kansas City Chiefs matchup in the AFC championship game, which would be played in Atlanta.
“To be honest, it’s disrespectful,” Mixon said, after the NFL’s ruling to go to a neutral site kicked in once the Bills (13-3) finished the season a half-game behind Kansas City (14-3). The Bengals (12-4) were left out of the picture even though they defeated the Chiefs this season, and missed out on their opportunity to pass the Bills in the standings once their game was called off.
An AFC championship between the Bengals and Chiefs will instead be played at Kansas City.
No matter, said Mixon.
“We got a game to play on Sunday, right? So you can’t count us out,” he said. "We’re going to go out there on Sunday and do what the hell we gotta do to get that dub. Then we’re going to see what they’re talking about.”
As if the Bengals need more to drive them, the Bills are favored.
“We know that we’re defending AFC champions, and so there’s an edge to this team. We’re not an underdog to anybody,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I just think that’s the feeling we’ve had all season. We don’t really care what anybody else says about us.
"We know we belong on the field with every team in this league.”
One major subplot involves the first meeting between Allen and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
Since 2021, Allen ranks second in the NFL with 72 touchdown passes, followed by Burrow (69), with both finishing tied for second with 35 each this season. Allen has been intercepted 16 times, including twice in last weekend's win over Miami, while Burrow has thrown 12 picks.
Burrow finished fifth in the NFL with 4,475 yards passing, while Allen ranked seventh (4,283). Allen had the edge with 762 yards rushing and seven TDs, with Burrow finishing with 257 yards and five touchdowns.
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS?
Allen conceded he's no match for Burrow when it comes to wearing flashy clothes on game day.
“He’s gonna win that battle 10 times out of 10,” Allen said. “I don’t really, I don’t dress to impress on game day, I just kind of walk in the closet and take whatever I see first.”
ON A ROLL
The Bengals have won a franchise-record nine straight games, and haven't lost since a 32-13 decision at Cleveland on Halloween. Cincinnati's first three losses were decided by a combined eight points.
The Bills have won eight straight, matching their longest single-season run including playoffs since 2020, and one short of matching their franchise record. Buffalo’s three losses have been decided by a combined eight points.
HAVE A BALL
Taylor continued a postgame tradition he began during last year’s Super Bowl run. After beating Baltimore, Taylor showed up at three area sports pubs to deliver game balls to fans. Bengals safety Vonn Bell joined in the fun, too, delivering another game ball at a pub.
“That tradition is never going to die,” Taylor said.
Burrow’s protection up front will feature three backup linemen after left tackle Jonah Williams dislocated his kneecap last week. Jackson Carman, a backup guard, will likely start for Williams on Sunday.
Right tackle La’el Collins (torn ACL) was lost for the rest of the season on Dec. 24, with Hakeem Adeniji replacing him. Right guard Alex Cappa (ankle) went out Jan. 8, and replaced by Max Scharping, who was claimed off waivers before the season.
Burrow was sacked four times last week, the most since he went down five times against the Browns in the Bengals' last loss on Halloween.
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy contributed.
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press