ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals threw a big wrench into the highly anticipated travel plans of the Buffalo Bills, their fans and perhaps even the NFL offices.
Burrow threw two touchdown passes and the Cincinnati defense swarmed Josh Allen on a snow-slicked field in a 27-10 win Sunday to send the Bengals to the AFC championship game for the second straight year.
And it will be in Kansas City again — instead of in Atlanta, the neutral site where the game would’ve been played if the Bills had beaten the Bengals.
“Better send those refunds,” Burrow said, referring to the 50,000 or so tickets already sold for a game that won’t be played.
“See y’all in Atlanta,” one Bengals player was heard yelling sarcastically while the team made its way to the locker room, where cornerback Eli Apple and a couple of teammates conducted interviews smoking cigars.
The Bengals entered the game feeling disrespected when the NFL began selling tickets for a would-be game in Atlanta that was dependent on the Bills and Chiefs winning this weekend.
The league decided on the first-of-its-kind neutral conference championship site because the Bills (13-3) finished the season a half-game behind the Chiefs (14-3) after their game in Cincinnati was canceled Jan. 2 when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field.
Hamlin’s inspirational presence while watching the game from an end-zone suite was not enough to spark the Bills.
Instead, it was “Joe Cool” showing poise while playing in a persistent snowfall.
Burrow completed his first nine passes for 105 yards in leading the Bengals to a 14-0 lead after their first two possessions. Ja’Marr Chase opened the scoring with a 28-yard touchdown catch 3:20 into the game, followed by Burrow’s 15-yard touchdown throw to Hayden Hurst eight minutes later.
Joe Mixon scored on a 1-yard run, and Evan McPherson hit field goals from 20 and 28 yards in a game the Bengals never trailed.
“The bigger the moment gets, the calmer he gets,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow, who improved his playoff record to 5-1. “Our guys believe. They walk on the field ready to attack.”
The Bengals advanced to consecutive AFC championship games for the first time in franchise history and will prepare for a rematch of last year’s title game. They 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 a fun one,” said Burrow, who went 23 of 36 for 242 yards. “Two of the top guys in the league, two of the top teams in the league, great defenses, great overall teams, great coaches.”
The Bengals have won the last three meetings against the Chiefs, including a 27-24 victory last month. The Chiefs are making their fifth straight appearance in the AFC championship game after a 27-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday.
The Bills’ playoff run ended in the divisional round for a second straight season, including a 42-36 overtime loss to the Chiefs last year.
Bills receiver Stefon Diggs was so upset, he was spotted leaving the locker room with much of his gear on shortly after the game ended before a teammate coaxed him to return.
“He’s a competitive guy. What makes him good is what you saw,” coach Sean McDermott said of Diggs. “It hurts. I wouldn’t want a guy that doesn’t hurt. We put it all on the line out there and tonight it wasn’t good enough.”
It was a dud of an outing for a Bills team that opened the season with Super Bowl aspirations and eventually ran out of emotional and physical gas. Aside from the stunning sight of Hamlin’s collapse, the Bills had their schedule disrupted twice by severe winter storms.
Injuries also played an issue. The pass rush, missing Von Miller since he sustained a season-ending knee injury in November, generated very little pressure against a Bengals offensive line missing three starters because of injuries.
“We were expecting their best punch and they came out and punched us‚” said Allen, who finished 25 of 42 for 265 yards and scored on a 1-yard plunge. “We just didn’t have it today.”
The Bengals mixed in their running attack to keep the Bills off balance in the first half. They outgained the Bills 274-135 in the first half and 412-325 overall. Mixon’s 105 rushing yards were 1 short of how many the Bengals combined for in their last two games, both against the Baltimore Ravens.
“Domination from start to finish,” Burrow added. “That’s what we expected. Job’s not finished.”
The Bengals held one of the NFL’s top offenses to a season-low 10 points. And the unit got a chance to celebrate by making snow angels in the end zone after Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Allen’s attempt at the goal line with 62 seconds remaining.
Hamlin was whisked into the stadium in a security vehicle and led directly into the Bills locker room about an hour before kickoff. He was later joined by his mother, Nina, and younger brother, Damir. He watched the game from a suite in one end zone and was pictured on the video board at the two-minute warning in the first half, with the Bengals facing second-and-goal at the Bills 5.
Hamlin raised his arms in his suite to a roar of cheers before making a heart sign with his hands. The Bills defense limited the Bengals to a field goal and they trailed 17-7 at halftime.
“We’ll be back,” Hamlin tweeted a few hours after the game. “Don’t even trip.”
Streaks and stats
- The Bengals extended their franchise-best winning streak to 10. They haven’t lost since a 32-13 defeat in Cleveland on Halloween.
- The Bengals’ 30 first downs were a franchise postseason record. They were the most allowed by the Bills since allowing 30 in last year’s playoff loss in Kansas City.
- The Bills dropped to 13-2 when hosting an NFL playoff game. They were 4-0 under McDermott.