Emotional tributes to hospitalized Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin were followed by two stunning kickoff return touchdowns on Sunday as the Bills won their NFL return after the defender suffered cardiac arrest during a game.
With Hamlin tweeting supportive messages from his intensive care hospital bed, the Bills defeated the New England Patriots 35-23 to secure a second seed spot in the NFL playoffs.
Tributes to Hamlin were abundant on the final Sunday of the regular-season, including fans and teammates wearing shirts with his jersey number "3" and holding "Pray for Damar" messages as they entered Highmark Stadium.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane called the game "a celebration of life" as Hamlin has made progress in his recovery after having had his heartbeat restored on the field following a blow to the chest Monday at Cincinnati.
"GameDay.. Nothing I Want More Than To Be Running Out That Tunnel With My Brothers," Hamlin tweeted before the game. "God Using Me In A Different Way Today. Tell Someone You Love Them Today."
The tension was broken in the game's opening seconds as Buffalo's Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a Bills touchdown as a crowd of more than 71,000 erupted with joy.
"God Behind All This No Coincidence," Hamlin tweeted.
As if to underscore his remark, the Bills answered in the third quarter after the Patriots took their first lead at 17-14.
On the subsequent kickoff, Hines returned the ball 101 yards for a touchdown in another Bills shocker.
There had been only four kickoff return touchdowns in the NFL all season but Hines had two in one game to spark Buffalo.
"Hines Free," Hamlin tweeted.
After Buffalo's Dawson Knox made a heart symbol with his hands following a touchdown catch, Hamlin tweeted, "I love you too."
- 'Pretty special' -
The Bills honored Hamlin with a special "3" patch on their jerseys -- located over their hearts -- and "Love for Damar" shirts and caps on the sidelines.
"Pretty special to play for the number on the front," Bills quarterback Josh Allen told his teammates regarding Hamlin's number patch.
There was also a special recognition at the stadium for the medical staff that saved Hamlin's life on the field watched by millions of fans on national television.
"It united this whole country in many ways in supporting Damar and his recovery," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Sunday in Buffalo.
League-wide moves to honor Hamlin included a pre-game moment of support for Hamlin, first responders and medical caregivers and the outlining of the 3 in the 30-yard line numbers in Bills red or blue coloring.
The Bills, in agreement with the NFL and NFL Players Association, will pay Hamlin's full season salary under a four-year deal worth $3.64 million. Hamlin was put on injured reserve Friday and could have lost more than $20,000 as a result.
In their latest medical update, the Bills said Hamlin remains in critical condition but continues to make progress. After a breathing tube was removed Friday, he spoke to his teammates through FaceTime, saying, "Love you boys."
The Buffalo-Cincinnati game will not be completed but the Bills, already playoff-bound, were able to handle the emotions of playing a final home game before the post-season begins next week.