Days after Damar Hamlin was hospitalized with cardiac arrest, the Buffalo Bills returned to the field against the New England Patriots on Sunday.
They did it with a bang as Nyheim Hines returned not one, but two kickoffs for touchdowns in a 35-23 Bills win. Hines fielded the game's opening kickoff at the 4-yard line, cut right past the Patriots' coverage team then sprinted untouched down the sideline for a 96-yard touchdown.
He did it again in the third quarter. With Buffalo trailing 17-14 after a fumble set up a Patriots field goal, Hines fielded the ensuing kickoff in the end zone. He dashed through the Patriots coverage team and broke free at the Buffalo 40-yard line. From there, he ran untouched again to secure a 101-yard touchdown return.
Hamlin, who has shown significant signs of recovery, was watching. Hines' first touchdown got his attention.
As did the second.
Hines joined the Bills as a midseason trade acquisition from the Indianapolis Colts. Buffalo traded running back Zach Moss and a conditional sixth-round pick to acquire Hines in hopes that the running back's penchant for making plays would deliver.
The deal paid off in a big way on Sunday in a game with playoff implications for both teams. Per NFL Next Gen stats, Hines is the first player since Leon Washington in 2010 to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game for the Seattle Seahawks. Prior to Sunday, there were just four kickoffs returned for touchdowns this season in the entire NFL. Now Hines has two of six.
Emotions run high in Buffalo
Just six days ago, the Bills' game against the Bengals was postponed when Hamlin collapsed on the field after a collision with Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins. First responders performed CPR on the field, and the Bills safety was transported to a Cincinnati hospital, having suffered cardiac arrest.
Hamlin remained in critical condition for multiple days as he remained on a ventilator. He regained consciousness midweek and has been in contact with his Bills teammates since. Hamlin has garnered an outpouring of support from the NFL world and beyond during his ordeal. A toy drive that he previously set up had received more than $8 million in donations as of Sunday afternoon. He felt well enough Saturday to send thanks to his supporters with a message on Instagram.
"The Love has been overwhelming, but I’m thankful for every single person that prayed for me and reached out," Hamlin wrote.
Prior to Sunday's kickoff, he posted an image of himself from his hospital bed on Twitter captioned "GAMETIME!!!"
While news on Hamlin's health has been encouraging, the Bills had something at stake in Sunday's game. The NFL announced midweek that the game against the Bengals would not be resumed, setting up a unique set of playoff scenarios with Buffalo and Cincinnati playing just 16 regular season games each.
The Bills lost out on a chance to secure the AFC's No. 1 seed when the Kansas City Chiefs won on Saturday. But with the win against the Patriots, they ensured themselves a neutral-site game in the AFC championship in the event that they advance to face the Chiefs.
The Patriots, meanwhile, were eliminated from the playoffs. They could have clinched the AFC's final wild-card spot with a win. But the loss opened the door for the Miami Dolphins, who are postseason-bound after an 11-6 win over the New York Jets. They'll travel to Buffalo for a third game against the Bills in next week's wild-card round.