The Buffalo Bills had an emotional 35-23 win over the Patriots on Sunday to lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC and eliminate New England from playoff contention.
The Bills will host the Dolphins next week in the AFC Wild Card round with the date & time to be determined.
Here are the top thee things we learned from the Bills' 13th victory of the season.
1. Lightning strikes twice
You couldn't script a more perfect start to Sunday's game.
"To God be the glory"
"It was big and it took us through"
Those were phrases used by Bills players as they watched Nyheim Hines race down the sidelines 96 yards for a touchdown on the opening kickoff, sending a reverberating jolt of energy across Highmark Stadium. The Bills' first play from scrimmage since the Damar Hamlin incident will be one that is forever etched in the franchise's history.
"It was electric, and we've had so many prayers and so much support and being able to start the game off like that, it's amazing," Hines said. "Our boys are gonna play spirited. And just being around all those guys, even though I have not been here a long time, it even motivated me."
Added head coach Sean McDermott: "I thought before in the days leading up to the game, wouldn't it be special if we could take that opening kickoff, and then when it happened I was just like, respectfully, I wasn't surprised just by the way the week's gone."
But Hines wasn't done there.
The emotional crescendo hit a lull in the middle part of the game as the Bills saw a 14-7 lead suddenly turn into a 17-14 Patriots advantage in the second half. New England entered the day fighting for their playoff life. A loss and they'd be eliminated. A win and they'd secure a Wild Card berth.
Just when the Patriots appeared on the brink of grabbing momentum away from the Bills as Nick Folk made a go-ahead field goal, Hines stole it back on the ensuing kickoff.
This time, Hines found a crease on the left side, broke a tackle and had nothing but green grass in front of him. The Buffalo RB, acquired at the trade deadline, danced his way into the end zone with a Deion Sanders-like strut, becoming the first player in team history with two kickoff return TDs in a single game.
"'Prime Time Shawty', I just called myself that sometimes," Hines laughed. "Just very, very spiritual ... I used to wear 21. Jordan [Poyer] has it and I probably will never get 21 again, but I still can high step."
For someone who came in midseason, Hines has made the most of his opportunities when called upon by the Bills this season. Though he admitted his bond with Damar Hamlin isn't at the level of some of his other teammates, Hines knew that No. 3 was all smiles when watching from UCMC.
"He's been one of the guys who've been most vocal about just telling me "Free Hines." He's told me that every game, so the fact that we could do that, while he – you know – in his absence, honestly, you can't really make this up."
Hines' opening kickoff TD return will forever go down in Buffalo sports lore, but his second paved the way for the Bills to take control of the rest of the game and assure themselves of the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
2. Allen to Diggs connection reestablished
QB Josh Allen hadn't recorded a touchdown pass longer than 25 yards since Week 8 against the Packers. In Sunday's regular season finale, Allen accomplished that twice in the span of two quarters.
After Hines put the Bills up 21-17, the Buffalo offense scored long touchdowns on its next two possessions and Allen was at the center of both plays.
On 2nd & 10 from the NE 42-yard line at 1:43 in the third quarter, Patriots LB Josh Uche immediately broke through the line of scrimmage with a clean look at Allen. The Bills QB evaded the pressure to his right and pointed for WR John Brown to keep running to the end zone. Allen uncorked a high-lofting spiral off his right foot and it found the arms of a diving Brown right at the goal line and in for a touchdown. 28-17 Bills.
"I just kind of saw no one back there and pointed to him and obviously having the rapport that I have with Smoke, he saw it and made an unbelievable catch. Unbelievable. So that was a pretty good feeling," Allen described.
The Patriots scored on the following drive to make it a one-score game again in the fourth quarter. As only he could do, Allen one-upped his previous theatrics.
Staring down a 3rd & 10 at midfield with 8:49 to play, Allen dropped back and uncorked a pass that traveled 60 yards in the air and hit an awaiting Stefon Diggs in stride for what officially went down as a 49-yard TD to go up 35-23. In a season where Allen has made a plethora of jaw-dropping throws, that one will rank near the top.
"Giving No. 14 a chance one-on-one and that's something maybe I've gotten away from a little bit too much," Allen admitted. "The dinking and dunking is great but sometimes you gotta let your dawgs be dawgs."
The Bills converted 7 of 12 (58%) third downs on the day, none bigger than that one.
For Diggs, he was Allen's favorite target from the get go, hauling in 7 catches for 104 yards and a score. It marked Diggs' first 100-yard game since Week 10 vs. the Vikings (7th 100-yard game of the year) and his 11th TD of the season, establishing a new career-high for a single season.
3. 3 is the magic number
The number 3 was everywhere this week in support of Damar Hamlin and it was only fitting it popped up several times during the game.
Hines' opening TD marked Buffalo's first kickoff return score in three years and three months to the date.
But the Bills defense also came away with three interceptions: the first by CB Tre'Davious White, another by LB Matt Milano and the third one from LB Tremaine Edmunds.
White's INT is his first of the season since he came back from his ACL injury and it came at a much-needed time in the game. The Patriots were driving in a tie game 14-14 and White made the play right at the goal line to take away a would-be New England TD.
"Anytime you can get a takeaway in the red zone it counts for two in our room. So I think that it was a big play. It was a play that our team needed in a big-time moment," White said.
The Bills went on to get two more takeaways on Pats QB Mac Jones. Milano intercepted a tipped ball in the end zone with 5:03 in the fourth quarter to prevent another potential TD and Edmunds put icing on the victory with an INT in the final three minutes that allowed the Bills to kneel out the clock.
The Bills defense finishes the regular season tied for third in the NFL in takeaways (27). They've ranked top 5 in that category each of the last three seasons.