Buffalo’s Nyheim Hines returned kickoffs 96 and 101 yards for touchdowns on Sunday and the Bills captured a number-two NFL playoff seeding with an emotional 35-23 victory over New England, eliminating the Patriots from playoff contention.
The Philadelphia Eagles took the number one seed in the NFC after a 22-16 win over the New York Giants on the final day of the regular season.
But the Green Bay Packers missed out on the playoffs after losing at home to the Detroit Lions 20-16, allowing the Seattle Seahawks to take the last available spot in the NFC.
In their first game since Buffalo defender Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and was revived on the field last Monday, the Bills set up a home playoff game next week against Miami.
The Dolphins ground out an 11-6 win over the New York Jets to make the post-season for the first time in six years.
The Bills finish behind AFC top seed Kansas City and if those teams should meet in the conference final, it would be at a neutral site since last Monday’s Cincinnati-Buffalo game will not be completed.
It was an emotional return to NFL competition for the Bills.
Hundreds of supportive signs for Hamlin and his recovery were on display as a crowd of more than 71,000 watched the Bills play host to New England.
Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards to deliver an electric start.
New England’s Jakobi Meyers caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Mac Jones in response.
Josh Allen capped a 75-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown toss to Dawson Knox to give Buffalo another lead but again New England equalized on a 2-yard Jones touchdown pass to DeVante Parker, making it 14-14 at halftime.
Nick Folk’s 24-yard field goal after a Devin McCarty fumble recovery gave the Patriots their first lead early in the third quarter.
But Hines responded with a 101-yard kickoff return in another shocker — there had been only four kickoff return touchdowns in the NFL all season — and Buffalo reclaimed the lead.
Allen added a 42-yard touchdown pass to John Brown for a 28-17 Bills lead but Jones and Parker combined on a 26-yard touchdown pass to lift New England within 28-23 but a two-point conversion attempt failed.
Jones was 17-for-17 on passes in New England’s three touchdown drives.
Allen answered with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to create the final margin.
“I can’t remember a play that touched me like that in my life,” Allen said when asked about the remarkable start to the game.
“It was just spiritual”.
Miami’s Jason Sanders kicked his third field goal of the game, a 50-yarder, with 18 seconds remaining to give the Dolphins an 11-6 victory over the visiting New York Jets.
That combined with New England’s loss gave Miami the last AFC playoff berth for the first time since 2016.
The Dolphins were again without first choice quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and with back-up Teddy Bridgewater suffering with a dislocated finger, third choice Skylar Thompson started and did a solid job, throwing for 152 yards in the low-scoring game.
“Nobody was telling me that I had to be a hero,” said Thompson. “It may not have been pretty, but we got the job done.”
Eagles take top seed
Having squandered two prior chances to take the top seed and first-round bye, the Eagles finally finished the job albeit in less than impressive fashion.
Philadelphia led 16-0 at half-time thanks to three field goals from Jake Elliott and a first quarter, eight yard touchdown rush from Boston Scott.
Elliott ended with a career-high five field goals as the Eagles, with Jalen Hurts back from injury at quarterback, secured a franchise-best 14th win of the season.
The San Francisco 49ers took the second seed after beating the Arizona Cardinals 38-13 with Brock Prudy throwing for 178 yards and three touchdowns.
Elijah Mitchell rushed for two touchdowns and 55 yards on five carries as the 49ers ensured they ended with a 13-4 record.
The 49ers will face Seattle in the wildcard round after they beat the Los Angeles Rams 19-16 with a field goal in overtime from Jason Myers.
Seattle’s win eliminated the Lions ahead of their game at Green Bay and meant that a win for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers would send them into the playoffs.
But despite having nothing but pride on the line, the Lions fought strongly and grabbed a fourth quarter lead with a one yard rush from Jamaal Williams to complete a 13 play, 75 yard drive.
On the next possession, Rodgers, whose future plans remain uncertain, was picked off by Kerby Joseph and Detroit ran out the clock to ensure they ended with a winning 9-8 record and ended the Packers’ season.
The Dallas Cowboys, were unimpressive in a 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders and will know they need to improve for next week’s playoff clash with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completed only 14 of 37 passes and saw an interception returned for a touchdown.
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