When Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field of Paycor Stadium, it was the heartbeat of Buffalo and the entire NFL community that kept him alive.
With their minds focused almost entirely on their teammate, the Bills (12-3) are preparing to face a dangerous Patriots (8-8) who, only figuratively, are also fighting for their lives. Despite losing four of its last six games, New England is in control of its destiny and would advance to the playoffs for the second year in a row with a win.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Buffalo has won four of the five most recent meetings against its divisional opponent, including a 24-10 win in Week 13. It is also the second-best defense, the best in the red zone, and the sixth in steals.
After seeing the tragedy, Buffalo showed unity and strength, the main ingredients in the recipe for success in the NFL. In addition, news of Hamlin’s remarkable improvement could serve as motivation.
All of that adds up to make Buffalo a formidable challenge for the Patriots who have gone through countless problems offensively. The attack led by quarterback Mac Jones is 17th in points, 21st in air yards and last in ERA in the last 20 yards.
New England, however, keeps its aspirations intact thanks to a defense that is second in the NFL in steals and the sixth-best against the run.
The gap between the two teams is, at first impression, too large, but it could be drastically reduced if the Bills are not sufficiently focused on the game. Under the circumstances, that is an equally titanic challenge.
The Lions started the season with a 1-6 record and end it with a life-and-death duel against the Packers who, in the same way, found a way to resurrect a campaign that seemed lost.
The last game of the regular season calendar is also the one that promises the most emotions. The playoffs begin Sunday night at Lambeau Field. Or maybe not. While Detroit has at least 8 wins for the first time since 2017, a Seattle win over the Rams hours earlier could automatically eliminate the Lions and their portentous attack.
The story is different for Aaron Rodgers, who controls his postseason destiny. A triumph and they are inside.
Only the Chargers in 2008 and Carolina in 2014 have advanced to the postseason after adding four wins or fewer in their first 12 games and Rodgers is poised to become the first quarterback with three playoff seasons after falling below .500 after 10 weeks of the season.
*For today: (15:30)
Chiefs (13-3) in Las Vegas (6-10)
Titans (7-9) in Jacksonville (8-8)
*Sunday 8: (12:00)
Buccaneers (8-8) in Atlanta (6-10)
Vikings (12-4) in Chicago (3-13)
Ravens (10-6) in Cincinnati (11-4)
Houston (2-13-1) at Indianapolis (4-11-1)
Jets (7-9) in Miami (8-8)
Panthers (6-10) in New Orleans (7-9)
Cafes (7-9) in Pittsburgh (8-8)
Chargers (10-6) in Denver (4-12)
Giants (9-6-1) in Philadelphia (13-3)
Cardinals (4-12) in San Francisco (12-4)
Rams (5-11) in Seattle (8-8)
Vaqueros (12-4) in Washington (7-8-1).
Lions (5-11) at Green Bay (6-10)
Road to playoffs
*Philadelphia already has a playoff spot and secures the East Division title and first place in the NFC with a win.
*San Francisco is already champion of the Western Division and aspires to first place in the NFC with a victory added to a defeat of the Eagles.
*Dallas is already in the playoffs but secures the East Division title with a combined win with a loss to Philadelphia. If he wins and Philadelphia and San Francisco lose, he would lead the NFC.
*Minnesota is already the champion of the Northern Division.
*Tampa Bay is already the South Division champion.
*The Giants have already secured a playoff spot as a wild-card team.
*Green Bay secures a playoff ticket with a win over Detroit.
*Seattle would go into the postseason with a win combined with defeat by Green Bay.
*Detroit could advance to the playoffs with a win coupled with a loss to Seattle.
*Buffalo is already the champion of the Eastern Division
*Kansas City is already the champion of the Western Division
*Chargers have already secured a playoff spot as a wild-card team.
Cincinnati already has a playoff spot and could secure the North Division with a win over Baltimore.
*Baltimore already has its playoff spot, but still aspires to be divisional champion with a win and other combinations.
*Jacksonville would advance as the South Division champion with a win over the Titans. Otherwise, it requires defeats of the Dolphins, Patriots vs Steelers to qualify as a wild card.
*Tennessee would advance as the South Division champion with a win over Jacksonville.
*New England would qualify for the playoffs with a win over Buffalo.
*Miami would earn a playoff spot with a win and a loss for the Patriots.
*Pittsburgh can enter the playoffs with a win against Cleveland coupled with losses to Miami and New England.