Bills ride emotional win into NFL postseason

Jan 8 (Reuters) - The NFL regular season reached an emotional climax on Sunday as the Buffalo Bills, inspired by Damar Hamlin, who is recovering from a cardiac arrest suffered during a game last week, beat the New England Patriots 35-23.

With 19 teams still in the postseason hunt entering the final weekend, there was no shortage of gridiron suspense unfolding across the United States.

But the emotional epicentre was Orchard Park, New York, and a seething Highmark Stadium, where the Bills and their fans led a league-wide tribute in support of Hamlin, the 24-year-old safety who collapsed after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2.

Hamlin, whose heartbeat was restored on the field, spent most of the week on a ventilator in a Cincinnati hospital intensive care unit, his fight captivating the sporting world.

At every stadium before kickoff there was an announcement acknowledging Hamlin and the first responders and medical caregivers.

Players wore hats and warmup gear with Hamlin's number 3 on them, and fans held homemade signs offering love and prayers.

But the Bills that provided Hamlin with the best tribute of all, harnessing their emotions to secure a victory and the AFC second seed.

With the stadium already crackling with energy, the game got off to an explosive start when Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, sending the sold-out crowd into a frenzy.

Hines returned another kickoff for a touchdown in the third quarter, giving the Bills a 21-17 lead they would never surrender ending the Patriots chances of reaching the playoffs.

"We just wanted to come out and play free, play loose, play for (Damar)," said Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who also threw three touchdown passes. "The first kickoff, you couldn't have scripted it any better. That one was pretty emotional ... it was spiritual."

Buffalo will next host to the Miami Dolphins, who returned to the postseason for the first time in six years after Jason Sanders kicked three fields, including a 50-yarder with 18 seconds to play, in a 11-6 win over the New York Jets.

The Kansas City Chiefs secured the number one seed and a first-round bye on Saturday when they beat the Las Vegas Raiders.

Cincinnati clinched the AFC third seed, taming the Baltimore Ravens 27-16 to set up a wildcard rematch between the North division rivals next week.

The other AFC wildcard will have the South Division champion Jacksonville Jaguars at home against the Los Angeles Chargers, who closed out their regular season with a 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos.

In the NFC, the Detroit Lions brought the curtain down on the regular season with a shock 20-16 upset of the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field, denying the Packers a playoff berth and allowing the Seattle Seahawks to snatch the last spot.

Earlier, the Seahawks had ended the Lions' postseason hopes and kept their own alive when Jason Myers connected on a 32-yard field goal, sealing a 19-16 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Rams.

The Seahawks will next face the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers, who head into the playoffs riding a 10-game winning streak after dropping the Arizona Cardinals 38-13.

With quarterback Jalen Hurts back from injury, the Philadelphia Eagles claimed the NFC top seed and a bye by beating the New York Giants 22-16 for a franchise record 14th victory.

Despite the loss, the Giants also qualify for the postseason, moving on to the wildcard, where they will face the Minnesota Vikings.

The Dallas Cowboys also head into the playoffs on a losing note, falling 26-6 to the Washington Commanders.

The Cowboys will face NFC South division champions Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were 30-17 losers to the Atlanta Falcons.

Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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