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Nathaniel Hackett was not out of work for long.
The former Broncos head coach on Thursday was named the New York Jets’ offensive coordinator, the team announced, exactly a month after he was fired by Denver 15 games into his first head coaching job.
Hackett oversaw a Broncos offense that finished last in the NFL in scoring and a franchise that started 2-1 but then lost nine of 10 overall and was sitting at 4-11 when he was fired. His firing came one day after a 51-14 blowout loss on Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Rams.
“The thing about Nathaniel is no matter how tough the times were, he stayed the course, and he kept our team together,” said general manager George Paton, who led the process that led to Hackett’s hiring, the day after he was fired. “When you lose eight one-score games and you’re out of the playoffs, it’s hard to keep your team together. These guys fought for Nathaniel. That’s a credit to him, and that’s a credit to his staff.”
Hackett has been a successful offensive coordinator before, both in non-play calling roles – like the three years in Green Bay before the Broncos hired him – and with the play sheet in his hand, from 2016-18 in Jacksonville.
In New York, he’ll be back in a familiar coaching circle. There, he’ll work for head coach Robert Saleh, whom he worked with in 2015-16 in Jacksonville. Saleh is also a close friend of Hackett’s former boss, Packers coach Matt LaFleur, and Hackett now is replacing LaFleur’s younger brother, Mike.
Like his hire a year ago to the Broncos, Hackett’s arrival in New York will create considerable interest in whether it makes the Jets a possible destination for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers’ future Hall of Famer has not yet decided if he wants to play in 2023, but if he does – and if Green Bay decides to move forward with Jordan Love – Rodgers will have a say in where he gets traded.
That may sound familiar to Broncos fans.
Outside of the quarterback room, though, the Jets have a good set of skill talent, including a standout rookie receiver in Garrett Wilson and a running back in Breece Hall who was putting together a terrific first year before he tore his ACL in Week 7 against the Broncos.
One other subplot: The Jets visit Denver again in 2023, meaning Hackett will return to Empower Field with a new team.
RB coach Wheatley lands college job. Hackett wasn’t the only 2022 Broncos coach to land a new job on Thursday. Former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley was named the head coach at Wayne State University, a Division II school in Michigan.
Wheatley is from nearby Inkster, Michigan and starred at the University of Michigan before beginning his NFL career. He spent one season in Denver.
Elsewhere from the Broncos’ coaching staff, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak and offensive coordinator Justin Outten have each received multiple interviews for staff positions including the Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee and Baltimore for Outten and the Jets (before Hackett’s hire) and Tampa Bay for Kubiak.
Kiszla: If Sean Payton is all about the money, DeMeco Ryans looks like smarter investment as next co
If all the Broncos did was check boxes in the search for a coach to return our local NFL squad to Super Bowl relevancy, DeMeco Ryans would’ve already been disqualified and sent packing as a candidate.
Is he a quarterback whisperer guaranteed to solve the mystery of Russell Wilson? No, sir. As defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, has Ryans ever been in charge of a pro football team? Nope.
But if Broncos CEO Greg Penner and the franchise’s new ownership group were beholden to preconceived notions or haunted by the past, Sean Payton or Jim Harbaugh would’ve already been introduced as the next man in charge at team headquarters.
Hey, Broncos Country: Are you ready for some DeMeco Ryans football?
I’m not saying it’s a done deal, and won’t even pretend I’m in any position to declare Ryans the prohibitive favorite to land the gig here in Denver. Heck, Ryans can’t even interview with the Broncos again until after the Niners play Philadelphia on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
Ryans, however, is the most intriguing candidate on Denver’s board, the rising star of this hiring cycle. As opposed to Dan Quinn, who once took Atlanta to the Super Bowl, or David Shaw, who won Pac-12 championships at Stanford, Ryans is the only one of the eight men who have interviewed for the job that Penner can claim as his “discovery.” Lack of experience by Ryans? The mistakes made on Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Nathaniel Hackett are not sins for which new ownership should feel any responsibility.
Yes, I readily admit my first choice has been Payton, a sharp offensive mind whose Super Bowl ring and 161-97 overall record with the Saints are beyond reproach.
But I also know: While building a football champion is not the same as assembling a retail empire, the Walmart way is not to overpay for anything, from real estate to mops to the greeter at the front door of the store.
So I never bought the balderdash that just because the crazy-rich Waltons purchased the Broncos for a record $4.65 billion that the new owners would pay Payton or Harbaugh $20 million-$25 million per year merely because they could. Let me repeat: If either Payton or Harbaugh was arrogant enough to think he needed to be overpaid to coach in Denver, the Broncos had the wrong guy for the job.
Price is no object? There has never been a smart businesswoman or male entrepreneur who has ever thought that way about anything treated as a serious business enterprise instead of a shiny new toy.
So it’s hard for me to conceive how people as smart as Carrie Walton Penner or Rob Walton would give the thumbs up to handing Payton a blank check or letting the Saints rob Denver blind of future draft assets in return for the privilege of hiring a coach with a proven NFL record.
It makes me smile as I watched Payton try to leverage his friendship with media star Colin Cowherd to negotiate a sweetheart deal with the Broncos. While there can be an exception to any rule, billionaires can seldom be bluffed into a game of liar’s poker.
If Payton really wants this gig in Denver, and I hope against hope he still does, he will enthusiastically agree to tackle the RW3 reclamation project on the Broncos’ contract terms. If not, Payton can always go back and watch NFL games next season from a cushy chair in the Fox studios, while waiting for Jerry Jones or some greater fool to give him a call.
Building a winning culture, not feeding a coach’s ego, should be priority No. 1 for the Broncos.
If the price for Payton isn’t right, Ryans could be far more than a consolation prize.
In a quote getting plenty of play around these parts, San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan gave a rousing endorsement of Ryans, who also is a top candidate for the head coaching position in Houston, where he originally caught Shanahan’s eye while distinguishing himself as a linebacker.
“It starts as a man,” said Shanahan, getting to the real nitty gritty of why he’s such a big believer in the 38-year-old Ryans. “He’s the ideal leader, whatever he does.”
San Francisco is a legit threat to win the Super Bowl, in no small part because it tapped the deep football resources of Colorado by tabbing Shanahan to coach, general manager John Lynch to construct the roster and running back Christian McCaffrey to tote the rock.
Sending Ryans to the Rocky Mountains could be the Niners’ way of doing Denver a solid.
San Francisco has been a hub for NFL coaches and front-office promotions in recent years, but Kyle Shanahan is hoping his latest rising star hits a career plateau again this winter.
The 49ers head coach lightheartedly asked the forgiveness of his defensive coordinator’s wife on Wednesday before saying he hoped DeMeco Ryans was back on his staff for another year in 2023.
“I hope he’s not a head coach next year,” Shanahan said with a smile, “But if he is, he more than deserves it.”
What makes Shanahan so sure?
“It starts as a man. He’s the ideal leader, whatever he does,” Shanahan said of the 38-year-old Ryans, who played linebacker in the league until 2015 and has been on the 49ers staff since 2017. “He was that way when he came into Houston as a rookie linebacker. He took over that defense right away. You could tell who was in charge when he was a 21-year-old. He came in here as a quality control and within like six months we moved him to linebacker coach.
“He’s always been that guy. And then just watching him over these two years, what he took in his years learning to get there, how much better he runs the system and then he adjusts every week. He sees how to play an offense, he pays attention to offense and defense.
“(I) thought he was ready last year to be a head coach.”
Ryans decided he wasn’t ready, pulling his name out of the running for the Minnesota job before a second-round interview to return to San Francisco for a second season as a defensive coordinator.
His time could be now – or, more accurately, whenever the 49ers’ postseason run ends.
Houston, where he made first-team All-Pro and spent six seasons, and the Broncos have interviewed him once and they will be allowed to do so again after the NFC Championship Game this weekend if they want to or feel the need to.
The Texans have lined up several other second-round interviews, including Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka on Wednesday.
Denver, meanwhile, has made no known second-round interview requests so far. What work Broncos CEO Greg Penner and company have done the first part of this week has taken place behind the scenes rather than by bringing candidates to Denver.
Other teams have proceeded differently, and several of the Broncos’ first wave of interviewees have progressed to second interviews with other teams looking for coaches. In addition to Houston, Evero has a second interview scheduled with Indianapolis. So, too, do Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Quinn also reportedly met with Arizona a second time on Tuesday.
Former New Orleans head coach Sean Payton? He met with Carolina on Monday and has a meeting with the Cardinals slated for Thursday after first-round chats with Denver and Houston last week, but a second interview with the Broncos – discussed earlier in the week, sources said – has so far not materialized.
Until the five teams that have openings start to drop the dominoes, Denver could still decide to bring in Quinn or Payton or former Stanford head coach David Shaw for interviews this week. Next week, they can do the same with Ryans if they still have an opening.
The market has developed slower this year than last. The NFL tweaked its timeline and what it allowed between the regular season and wild-card round in an effort to slow teams down, but there are also fewer teams hiring head coaches this year than last year’s nine-team bonanza.
A year ago, Denver brought Nathaniel Hackett to Denver on a second-round interview the Tuesday of conference championship week and had him locked up by Thursday. He was the first coach to secure a job in the cycle and Chicago hired Matt Eberflus later the same day.
Rosburg latest. Interim Broncos head coach Jerry Rosburg has returned to the dock he said he was sitting on when general manager George Paton first called him back in September. ESPN categorized the move as Rosburg being “let go” by the Broncos on Wednesday, though the 67-year-old was not a serious candidate for the full-time head coaching job and was not under contract for the 2023 season.
He arrived in Denver during Week 3 to help Nathaniel Hackett with game management and ended up serving the final two weeks of the regular season as the team’s interim head coach after Hackett was fired.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. released his latest NFL mock draft on Wednesday and the draft analyst has the Broncos beefing up their defense in the first round.
Kiper has Denver selecting Notre Dame edge rusher Isaiah Foskey with the No. 29 overall pick the draft.
“Denver traded away prime picks to get quarterback Russell Wilson last offseason, and it got back this one after dealing Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins before the deadline at midseason. Suddenly, when you look at this depth chart, there’s no Chubb or Von Miller exploding off the edge, even though defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero did a great job with what he had this season,” Kiper writes. “Because it’s a little too late in Round 1 to find a surefire offensive line starter, I like what Foskey would bring to the Broncos. He had 22 sacks and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons, and at 265 pounds, he could play in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme at the next level.”
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Foskey declared for the draft in December and will forgo his senior season with the Fighting Irish. He is listed as the No. 5 defensive end available on Kiper’s big board.
The NFL draft takes place April 27-29 in Kansas City, Mo.
Who’s going to be the next Broncos head coach? One name is rising to the top, according to one oddsmaker.
Former Saints head coach Sean Payton has -110 odds — meaning a $110 bet would win $100 — to become the successor to Nathaniel Hackett in Denver, according to Draftkings Sportsbook on Tuesday.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is next at +275, followed by 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans (+400), Broncos interim head coach Jerry Rosburg (+1,200), former Lions coach Jim Caldwell (+1,500), former Stanford coach David Shaw (+1,500) and Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero (+1,800).
It’s a leap for Payton from last week when he had +225 odds, behind then-frontrunner Quinn’s +150.
Some notable longshots on the list include former Broncos quarterbacks Peyton Manning (+10,000) and John Elway (+15,000), former Denver receiver Jerry Rice (+15,000) and Hall of Fame tight end turned Grizzlies criticizer Shannon Sharpe (+15,000).
Denver Post Broncos writer Parker Gabriel posts his Broncos Mailbag weekly during the season. Submit questions to Parker here.
I’m a fan who dislikes the league allowing the amount of contact (grabbing, pulling, etc.) by defensive backs that occurs on every pass play. It takes away from the skill set of the receivers and makes me laugh when announcers praise the skill of defensive backs who hold onto receivers running down the field. You agree?
— Mary Heckert, Albuquerque, N.M.
Hey Mary, thanks for writing in and for the interesting question.
Most defensive players and coaches would tell you it’s tough enough these days to play defense without going any further on the pushing and grabbing down the field. If a defensive player can’t put his hands on a receiver, then a receiver shouldn’t be able to put his hands on a defensive player. That would make for a total mess.
I actually like when officiating crews let players play. Obviously, it can get out of hand and pass interference is necessary to police instances where defenders clearly restrain receivers from catching the ball. There was one holding call Sunday where a Dallas player simply dragged down 49ers tight end George Kittle to prevent him from continuing his route into the end zone. Easy enough. But overall I appreciate physical play and think pass interference still gets called based on anticipation rather than actual restrictive contact too often.
An observation, not a question. Josh Allen isn’t the only University of Wyoming player John Elway whiffed on. We could have had Logan Wilson instead of KJ Hamler.
— Mike, Colorado City
Mike, you’re not wrong, though it’s always easy to find instances where any team could have had this guy rather than that guy.
Broncos-wise, did you know Seattle’s burgeoning young star corner Tariq Woolen was drafted in the fifth round, one pick after Denver took safety Delarrin Turner-Yell?
As it pertains to 2018, that was well before my time here, but one of the interesting subplots of the Josh Allen situation was that Denver had an up close and personal look at him during Senior Bowl week, where the coaching staff coached Allen’s North team. Baker Mayfield, too, for that matter, though he went No. 1 overall.
The 2020 draft definitely looks light for the Broncos so far. Jerry Jeudy may salvage it the way he blossomed over the second half of 2022. But Hamler’s struggled to stay healthy, Denver cut one third-rounder (Michael Ojemudia) late this season and the other (center Lloyd Cushenberry) missed the final nine games with a groin injury. Albert Okwuegbunam and Justin Strnad are still with the franchise, while the other four picks — McTelvin Agim, Netane Muti, Tyrie Cleveland and Derrek Tuszka — are not. Big offseason/2023 upcoming for Hamler, Cushenberry and Okwuegbunam, in particular.
Oh, and Cincinnati’s first three picks in 2020: Joe Burrow, receiver Tee Higgins and Wilson. That’ll work.
Help me out here Parker. Why aren’t we talking about Jerry Rosburg as a candidate? He “turned the ship around” in a week with his experience and no-nonsense approach. He is confident, transparent and appears to have established an effective rapport with the players and the coaches. And, with Jerry as the HC we wouldn’t have to worry about him wanting to be the OC or the DC. If Ejiro Eviro doesn’t get a HC job we could keep him as our DC. Can you say “associate head coach”? His defense was one of the best and the players love him. The OC job may be up for grabs but you gotta say that when Justin Outten took over the play calling Russ looked like Russ. So, why not Jerry? Keep the draft pick.
— J. Mark Hill, Denver
JMH, thanks for the note.
Rosburg doesn’t get talked about as a candidate because he didn’t formally interview for the job. ESPN reported over the weekend — and The Post confirmed similar — that Rosburg expressed in a postseason debrief with Broncos brass that he’d be interested in the top job.
He laid out his thoughts on how it should look and indicated he thought he’d be a good fit for a short stint. It’s not a big surprise, even though Rosburg said nothing about anything other than the present during his two weeks in charge. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in being the head guy? To date, it hasn’t progressed from there. The safe bet is that the ownership group was happy with the work he did in a tough situation and will be thankful for it, but that’s that.
Maybe the next head coach will want him as a special teams coordinator — if that’s something he’s interested in, though at 67 years old, Rosburg certainly doesn’t have to be back with a team in the fall. Maybe things get squirrely this week with other finalist interviews and they come back around to him. Surprises do happen. But ultimately as of this writing, the ownership group has plenty of reason to feel good about the seven candidates still in the running.
Another week has gone by and we’re further into the coaching search. Who do you think has the inside edge right now to be Denver’s next coach? It seems like it’s a three-way race right now between Sean Payton, Dan Quinn and DeMeco Ryans. Any dark horses in your mind?
— Mike, Denver
Mike, difficult question to answer with as fluid as these situations can be. Quinn and Payton have been in the picture the whole way since Nathaniel Hackett was fired on Dec. 26, and Ryans and Evero make for compelling, popular candidates in this cycle even as potential first-timers. Don’t forget about David Shaw, the former Stanford head coach. The ownership group/search committee has deep Stanford ties and, as I pointed out in a debate with Kiz earlier this week, Payton has sung his praises as a potential NFL coach in the past. It’s enough to get your attention, at least.
The thing about this group that is perhaps most interesting is that you could make a case for any of them. Tough to say that Jim Caldwell, for example, isn’t qualified to be a head coach when he’s done it twice previously and had a winning record both times, or that Raheem Morris isn’t deserving of another chance.
Any word on new uniforms for next season? Don’t get me wrong, these have been classics for a while, but it’s been 25 years since we rebranded with our current logo and look. I’d love to see some version of the classic “D” and the horse back.
— Mark, Arvada
No word yet, Mark. President Damani Leech made a reference to the process of making formal uniform changes in London back in October — “if you don’t know, is a multi-year process to actually change from a league standpoint,” he said then — and since has said or hinted a few times that it’s something the franchise is looking into.
Just based on Leech’s comments so far, a full overhaul for 2023 seems a little aggressive timeline-wise, but it does appear to be something the franchise is working on in the relatively short-term future.
As the Broncos prepare to bring a group of head coaching candidates to Denver for the next round of interviews this week, the search appears to have layers yet to unfold.
After an initial round of eight interviews — now seven candidates with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh backing out to remain at his alma mater — the search will progress this week with a smaller group. As of Monday afternoon, though, multiple sources told The Post that the Broncos’ search committee had not finalized a schedule for who might come to town when.
Central to the conversation, of course, is former New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. He completed an initial interview in person with the Carolina Panthers on Monday, multiple outlets reported. Payton also has an initial interview on the books for later in the week with Arizona, according to multiple reports.
Last week, Payton conducted first-round interviews with Denver (in-person) and Houston (virtual).
Sources close to the search believe he’s in line for a second interview with the Broncos, though when exactly remains to be seen. The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans reported Monday that Payton was planning to fly to Denver on Wednesday in anticipation of an interview either that night or Thursday. But the interview with Arizona, if it happens Thursday, could affect that plan.
Payton first met with the Broncos’ search committee — including CEO Greg Penner, general manager George Paton and limited shareholder Condoleezza Rice — on Jan. 17 in Los Angeles.
Any team that wants to hire Payton has to compensate the Saints as he remains under contract with the franchise through the 2024 season. Payton has said the asking price is roughly the equivalent of a mid-first-round pick, while the Times-Picayune reported New Orleans is asking for compensation closer to a 2002 trade for Jon Gruden that featured two first-rounders, two second-rounders and $8 million.
The process, as Payton and New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis have laid out, includes the potential hiring team working out trade compensation with the Saints before formally offering Payton a contract.
At any rate, Monday brought more evidence that Penner and the Broncos search committee is comfortable with the pace of its search.
A year ago, the Broncos interviewed Nathaniel Hackett the Tuesday after the divisional round and also had second interviews arranged with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and then-Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell later in the week. The Broncos moved quickly to secure Hackett, however, after a report surfaced that he also had a second interview lined up with Jacksonville.
Among Denver’s coaching candidates this time around, only San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is unavailable to interview this week. Ryans’ 49ers won Sunday in the NFC divisional round against Dallas — and Quinn, once again a Broncos coaching candidate — meaning he cannot interview until the bye week between Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl week.
Any of Payton, Quinn, Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, former Stanford head coach David Shaw and former Indianapolis and Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell are theoretically available for a second-round interview this week.
Surtain honored again. Denver second-year corner Pat Surtain II made it a clean sweep of postseason awards on Monday, being named a first-team All Pro by the Pro Football Writers Association. The 22-year-old found himself next to New York Jets rookie “Sauce” Gardner in the voting by reporters. Surtain has now made the PFWA list and also been named first-team All Pro by the Associated Press and the NFL Players Association in addition to being tabbed an AFC Pro Bowl starter.
Broncos grant $250K for turf field. The Broncos on Monday announced they granted Chavez Huerta K12 Preparatory Academy in Pueblo $250,000 to install an artificial turf field. The grant was made through the NFL Foundation and LISC Grassroots.
It is the ninth such field the Broncos have installed since 2000 through the programs, totaling $1.7 million in support.
Kiz: Yeah, but Sean Payton only won the Super Bowl once with Drew Brees as his quarterback in New Orleans. If that’s your best argument against hiring Payton to rescue the Broncos, would you like some cheese with that whine? Payton has been my No. 1 candidate from the start. But we all know his compensation, in terms of both draft picks conveyed to New Orleans and salary demands, could quash the deal. So as we enter the final round of interviews, does Denver have a legit alternative to hiring Payton?
Gabriel: A timely and interesting question there, Kiz. We know the landscape: Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is out of the running and there are six other men the Broncos have interviewed. One of them — San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans — isn’t available for another interview until after the 49ers play in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday. Any of the rest could make the trek to Denver this week. Conventional wisdom says Dan Quinn, a finalist last year, is the next man up if we’re calling Payton target numero uno. Ryans is interesting. Watch his team play — talent like linebacker Fred Warner certainly helps, but the Broncos have talent of their own on defense — and tell me he doesn’t have chops. At the same time, is the new ownership group going to seriously consider a fourth straight first-time head coach? The best rebuttal on that front is that it would be the Broncos’ fourth, but the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group’s first.
Kiz: I like Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. A lot. But I also think the way Denver dumped his buddy Nathaniel Hackett has made for an awkward relationship that might make it best for Evero and the Broncos to part ways. Jim Caldwell is more than qualified, but the part we can’t say aloud: He’s 68 years old and hasn’t worked in three seasons. Quinn kinda reminds me of John Fox, which isn’t a bad thing. But might Quinn’s tight relationship with Broncos general manager George Paton actually be a non-starter for Greg Penner? Hmm, help me out, I’m running out of candidates.
Gabriel: The Stanford connections among the Broncos’ new ownership group run deep, from the Penners each having degrees from the school to limited shareholder Condoleezza Rice to a former Broncos quarterback you may have heard of, so could that help push David Shaw into the finalist group and toward the big prize?
Kiz: If Payton really wants back in the game, does he really need a $25 million salary, and do the Saints really need more than a first and a third as draft-pick compensation? If today’s calendar read 2019, Shaw would be a red-hot candidate. He spent nine years working in the NFL before winning the Pac-12 Conference three times at Stanford. Yes, his final four seasons in Palo Alto stunk. But if the Broncos can’t make a deal with Paton, I think the best (if imperfect) fit could be Shaw.
Gabriel: Even more recently than 2019, in December 2020, Payton himself told the Around the NFL podcast that he thought it was ludicrous that Shaw hadn’t yet been lured to the NFL when discussing the lack of diversity among head coaches in the league. Here’s what he said, “Every time I bring his name up people say, ‘Well, David’s staying in college.’ I understand that, but Steve Spurrier was staying in college and Nick Saban was staying in college. … At some point, someone says, ‘No, you’re coming here because we’re going to make you take this job.’ … Why is it that a young talented coach, Stanford graduate, West Coast offense guy, and I always begin with David because I know him and I know how talented he is. Now, he may turn down all of those opportunities, but you know what? He didn’t have those opportunities where someone said, ‘We have to have him.’”
If Payton doesn’t end up in Denver, maybe he’ll put in another good word.
By CAROLYN THOMPSON
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin made his first public appearance since going into cardiac arrest after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals three weeks ago, waving to fans from a stadium suite on Sunday as the teams met again for an AFC divisional playoff game the Bills went on to lose 27-10.
The crowd at Highmark Stadium erupted when an image of the recovering Hamlin filled the massive screens at the end zones near the end of the first half. Fans turned toward the glass-enclosed suite and cheered.
Hamlin, wearing a hooded jacket, stood in front of the windows and raised his arms as if saluting the crowd and encouraging it to get on its feet as the Bengals were facing second-and-goal at their 5. He ended by forming a heart sign with his hands, his signature gesture.
Earlier Sunday, the Bills posted a video to both Instagram and Twitter showing Hamlin arriving at the team’s locker room and the message “Welcome home, Damar.” The video showed Hamlin arriving in a golf cart about an hour before kickoff, wearing sunglasses and a face covering, the hood of his jacket pulled up. He was accompanied by his 7-year-old brother, Damir, and mother, Nina.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen described his presence as “a warm feeling.
“Obviously, we wanted to play for him … We just ran into a team that played better than us tonight,” Allen said after the loss.
Hamlin was not seen before the game got underway in snowy conditions. The Bills made no announcement about his whereabouts, but word of his attendance had spread by the time he appeared on the screens.
“It was amazing, it really was. I think everybody got so excited,” fan Brin Jobson of Buffalo said at halftime. “We heard he might be here, so it was cool to see him.”
Hamlin, 24, had not appeared in public since the Bills and Bengals last met on Jan. 2 in a game that came to an abrupt halt and was eventually canceled after Hamlin’s collapse on the field in the first quarter.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said Hamlin began making regular visits to the team’s facility soon after his release from the hospital in what he described as “dipping his toe back in here and getting on the road to just getting back to himself.”
It was “just a great moment” when Hamlin appeared on screen during the game, McDermott said afterward, especially considering that just weeks ago, medical personnel used CPR and an automatic external defibrillator to restart his heart.
For several minutes, the television audience that tuned in for that Monday night game instead absorbed the fear and sadness on players’ faces, some streaked with tears.
“Just him being in the locker room (Sunday), his presence was good for the guys,” McDermott said.
A family spokesman for Hamlin said this week that he still faces a lengthy rehabilitation. “Damar still requires oxygen and is having his heart monitored regularly to ensure there are no setbacks or aftereffects,” Jordon Rooney told The Associated Press.
The Bills have not disclosed the results of tests Hamlin has undergone to determine why his heart stopped after he was struck in the chest while making what appeared to be a routine tackle.
Hamlin, who is originally from the Pittsburgh area, live-tweeted while watching Buffalo’s 35-23 season-ending win over New England from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center on Jan. 8. Last weekend, he live-tweeted from home while watching the Bills’ 34-31 win over Miami in a wild-card playoff.
“We’ll be back,” Hamlin tweeted a few hours after the Bills’ season-ending loss to the Bengals. “Don’t even trip.”
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals threw a big wrench into the highly anticipated travel plans of the Buffalo Bills, their fans and perhaps even the NFL offices.
Burrow threw two touchdown passes and Cincinnati’s defense swarmed Josh Allen on a snow-slicked field in a 27-10 win Sunday to send the Bengals to the AFC championship game for the second straight year.
And it’ll be in Kansas City again — instead of in Atlanta, the neutral site where the game would’ve been played if Buffalo had beaten Cincinnati.
“Better send those refunds,” Burrow said, referring to the 50,000 or so tickets already sold for a game that will never be played.
“See y’all in Atlanta,” one Bengals player was heard yelling sarcastically while the team made its way to the locker room, where cornerback Eli Apple and a couple of teammates conducted interviews smoking cigars.
The Bengals entered the game already feeling disrespected when the NFL began selling tickets for a would-be game at Atlanta, that was dependent on the Bills and Chiefs winning this weekend.
The league decided on the first of its kind conference championship neutral site setting because the Bills (13-3) finished the season a half-game behind the Chiefs (14-3) after their game at Cincinnati was canceled on Jan. 2 when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field.
Hamlin’s inspirational presence while watching the game from an end-zone suite was not enough to spark the Bills.
Instead, it was “Joe Cool” showing poise while playing in a persistent snowfall.
Burrow completed his first nine passes for 105 yards as Cincinnati raced to a 14-0 lead after its first two possessions. Ja’Marr Chase opened the scoring with a 28-yard TD catch 3:20 into the game, followed by Burrow’s 15-yard TD throw to Hayden Hurst eight minutes later. Joe Mixon scored on a 1-yard run, and Evan McPherson made field goals from 20 and 28 yards in a game the Bengals never trailed.
“The bigger the moment gets, the calmer he gets,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow, who improved his playoff record to 5-1. “Our guys believe. They walk on the field ready to attack.”
Cincinnati advanced to consecutive AFC championship games for the first time in franchise history and will prepare for a rematch of last year’s title game. The Bengals defeated Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs 27-24 to advance to last year’s Super Bowl, which they lost to the Los Angeles Rams.
“It’s going to be a fun one,” said Burrow, who went 23 of 36 for 242 yards Sunday. “Two of the top guys in the league, two of the top teams in the league, great defenses, great overall teams, great coaches.”
Cincinnati has won the past three meetings against Kansas City, including a 27-24 victory last month. The Chiefs are making their fifth straight appearance in the AFC championship game following a 27-20 win over Jacksonville on Saturday.
The Bills’ playoff run ended in the divisional round for a second straight season, including a 42-36 overtime loss to Kansas City last year.
Bills receiver Stefon Diggs was so upset, he was spotted leaving the locker room with much of his gear on shortly after the game ended before being coaxed by a teammate to return.
“He’s a competitive guy. What makes him good is what you saw,” coach Sean McDermott said of Diggs. “It hurts. I wouldn’t want a guy that doesn’t hurt. We put it all on the line out there and tonight it wasn’t good enough.”
It was a dud of an outing for the Bills, who opened the season with Super Bowl aspirations, and eventually ran out of emotional and physical gas. Aside from the stunning sight of Hamlin’s collapse, the Bills had their schedule twice disrupted by severe winter storms.
Injuries also played an issue. The Bills’ pass rush, missing Von Miller since he sustained a season-ending knee injury in November, generated very little pressure against a Bengals offensive line missing three starters due to injuries.
“We were expecting their best punch and they came out and punched us,” said Allen, who finished 25 of 42 for 265 yards, and scored on a 1-yard plunge. “We just didn’t have it today.”
The Bengals mixed in their running attack to keep the Bills off balance in a first half during which Cincinnati outgained Buffalo in total yards by a margin of 274-135, and 412-325 overall. Mixon’s 105 yards rushing alone were 1 short of how many the Bengals combined in their past two games, both against Baltimore.
“Domination from start to finish,” Burrow added. “That’s what we expected. Job’s not finished.”
The Bengals held one of the NFL’s top offenses to season-low 10 points. And the unit got a chance to celebrate by making snow angels in the end zone after Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Allen’s attempt at the goal line to essentially end the game with 62 seconds remaining.
Hamlin was whisked into the stadium in a security vehicle, and led directly into the Bills’ locker room about an hour before kickoff. He was later joined by his mother, Nina, and younger brother, Damir. He watched the game from a suite in one end zone and was pictured on the videoboard at the 2-minute warning in the first half, with Cincinnati facing second-and-goal at Buffalo’s 5.
Hamlin raised his arms in his suite to a roar of cheers, before making a heart sign with his hands. The Bills limited the Bengals to a field goal, and trailed 17-7 at the half.
“We’ll be back,” Hamlin tweeted a few hours after the game. “Don’t even trip.”
STREAKS AND STATS
The Bengals extended their franchise-best streak to 10 straight wins. They haven’t lost since a 32-13 defeat at Cleveland on Halloween. The Bengals’ 30 first downs were a franchise postseason record.
They were the most allowed by the Bills since allowing 30 in last year’s playoff loss at Kansas City.
The Bills dropped to 13-2 when hosting an NFL playoff game. And they were 4-0 under McDermott.
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