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With Damar Hamlin improving, it’s time for Bills and Bengals to settle things on the field

Bills quarterback Josh Allen (above) says the team's spirits have been lifted considerably by having Damar Hamlin around their facility.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Damar Hamlin is back making daily visits to the Bills’ training facility and continues to progress in his recovery from cardiac arrest. But that doesn’t mean the Bills and Bengals have been able to totally put the images of the Jan. 2 incident behind them.

“That experience, we’ll carry that with us,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said this week. “There’s a challenge to that, but there’s also a lot of good that came from that. And I think right now we need to focus on the positives than the other piece of that.”

Hamlin’s recovery allows the NFL to get back to the other matter at hand — settling the score between the 14-3 Bills and 13-4 Bengals. The AFC powerhouses meet Sunday in Western New York in the Divisional Round, just 20 days after their Week 17 showdown was suspended and then canceled when the Bills safety was stricken with 5:58 left in the first quarter and the Bengals leading, 7-3.

“There’s a lot of reprieve from seeing him and carrying conversations, chewing the fat,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “He seems to be, I think, still physically very tired. But the guy’s in great spirits. And that also helps with the recovery process for all of us, as well.”


Bengals-Bills is one of the premier matchups in today’s NFL: Josh Allen vs. Joe Burrow, for the first time ever. Two high-powered offenses. Elite playmakers. Championship-caliber defenses. Super Bowl hopes on the line.

The Week 17 matchup was one of the most anticipated games of the 2022 season, with the winner getting the inside track on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Instead, the unprecedented cancellation hurt both teams, with the Chiefs, who lost to the Bills and Bengals during the season, instead getting the No. 1 seed.

It was an unsatisfying conclusion, but the Bills and Bengals get another shot at each other just three weeks later. NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said this week the league opted against holding this game at a neutral site. The winner goes on to face the Chiefs or Jaguars in the AFC Championship game.


“We have a tremendous amount of respect for them,” McDermott said of the Bengals. “They are the reigning AFC champions, so I think that’s all that needs to be said.”

The Bengals sound like they have gotten back to normal, with players and coaches miffed that they are 5½-point underdogs and aren’t getting enough respect. The Bengals haven’t lost since Halloween, entering Sunday with nine straight wins.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals have won nine straight, including a Christmas Eve victory over New England in Foxborough.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“We know that we’re the defending AFC champions,” coach Zac Taylor said. “We’re not an underdog to anybody, so I think that’s just been the feeling we’ve had all season. We don’t really care what anybody else says about us.”

Bengals running back Joe Mixon has said several times the past few weeks, “We the big dogs in the AFC.”

The Bengals are 22-11 the last two years, plus 4-1 in the playoffs. But they will likely be missing three starters on the offensive line against the Bills’ No. 2-ranked defense. Light snow is also in the forecast, and for Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow, and even Taylor, it could be their first game in the snow.

But the Bengals won two road games in the playoffs last year en route to the Super Bowl, and don’t seem fazed about going to Buffalo.


“We ain’t no underdogs,” Mixon said. “I tell everybody all the time, when the lights are bright, we shine brighter.”

The Bengals may be the defending AFC champions, but the Bills have all the pressure. They couldn’t get out of the Divisional Round a year ago, suffering a heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs. The Bills entered this season as heavy Super Bowl favorites, and even though McDermott led them to their third straight AFC East title, anything less than a Super Bowl is a disappointment.

The Bills say their spirits have been lifted by having Hamlin around the facility. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him make some sort of appearance at Sunday’s game.

“Everybody’s champing at the bit to talk to him, and don’t want to overload him with too much right now,” Allen said. “But it’s been good to see him, you know, the smile on his face, and guys love having him back in the building.”

The key for the Bills will be protecting the football. Their 27 giveaways this season were third-most in the NFL. They have turned the ball over three times in three straight games, all wins.

“That’s not the way to live your life if you want to win games in the NFL,” McDermott said.

Both teams are struggling with game-planning — specifically, how much of the Week 17 plan to use and how much to scrap. The Bills ran 11 plays and the Bengals seven before the game was called. Burrow came out firing, going 4 for 4 for 54 yards and a touchdown.


Buffalo's Sean McDermott has his team ready for the divisional round.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

“It’s so strange because you practiced a whole week, and it wasn’t like it was nine weeks ago, it was two weeks ago,” Taylor said. “We got a possession and two plays, and they got one possession. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not much. So there’s a lot there that both teams didn’t get a chance to utilize.”

Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said the Bills will use their Week 17 game plan as an “outline” for Sunday, “because there’s a lot of plays we didn’t run that are still applicable.”

For both teams, it’s just a relief to talk football again and finally settle this matter on the field.

“It’s just another game, another playoff game,” Burrow said. “Now that Damar is doing better, back with the team, at least for me I think it’s in the past. Obviously what happened, that’s always in the back of everybody’s mind. But now it’s win or go home. I think that’s what everybody’s mostly focused on.”

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.