Ryan King plans to be among the legions of Cincinnati Bengals fans in the stands at Paycor Stadium on Sunday for the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens.

While he’s hoping for a win to send the team into the playoffs on a note, his more general goal is for things to go differently than they did a few days earlier.

What You Need To Know

  • The Bengals and Bills return to the field Sunday, less than a week after the harrowing injury suffered by Damar Hamlin

  • Fans of both teams expect a surreal experience on game day, especially with league-wide plans to show support for the injured Bills defensive back

  • Outcomes from Sunday's games could impact AFC playoff positions for several teams, but many fans believe that's the last thing they're worried about after what happened on Monday

King was one of the more than 65,000 fans in the downtown Cincinnati stadium on Monday for the Bengals’ highly anticipated prime-time showdown with the Buffalo Bills.

His seat in the upper deck was right next to that of his 12-year-old daughter, Avery. It was her first NFL game. She’s a big-time Bengals fan, her father said.

“We showed up super early and the place was already rocking. You could feel the energy of the crowd even before the game started,” King said. 

But a few minutes into the first quarter, everything went silent.

The tackle felt ‘round the world

When Damar Hamlin, a Buffalo Bills defensive back, abruptly collapsed onto the field after tackling Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, a wave of confusion and fear swept through the stadium.

Ryan King (R) and daughter Avery attended Monday's Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati. (Photo courtesy of Ryan King)
Ryan King (R) and daughter Avery attended Monday's Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati. (Photo courtesy of Ryan King)

Neither King nor his daughter knew what was going on. But they soon found out after he started receiving texts from his wife, who was watching the game at home in Lawrenceburg, Ind., with Avery’s twin sister, Taylor.

“(Taylor) was more struck by it than Avery just because she’s watching it on TV. She could see that people were crying and knew it was a big deal,” King said. “She was really concerned for him and wanted him to be okay. It’s a lot to explain to a young kid.”

Hamlin’s name has trended on social media since Monday. Prayer, well-wishes and millions of dollars for his Chasing M’s Foundation have poured in since then.

On Thursday, doctors at University of Cincinnati Medical Center confirmed that Hamlin, 24, had made “remarkable progress” overnight and was now awake, alert and able to communicate in writing. But the medical team stressed he remains “critically ill” and still has a long road to recovery.

The Bills tweeted Friday saying that doctor’s removed Hamlin’s breathing tube. He spoke to his family and doctors and even had a video chat with his teammates. 

Hamlin reportedly told them, “Love you boys.” 

While the NFL decided Thursday not to resume the Bills-Bengals game, both teams have scheduled contests on Sunday, the last weekend of the regular season. 

The Bengals are hosting the Baltimore Ravens at 1 p.m. Sunday, while the Bills have a matchup with the New England Patriots in Buffalo at the same time.

Not just another game for Bills, Bengals

“It's going to be a very emotional game and probably one of the most meaningful of the entire season,” said Ashley Boone, a resident of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Boone recalled waking up Tuesday with an immediate need to find out if there was any update on Hamlin’s condition.

“He was still in incredibly critical condition, and it sort of made you look at football from a different perspective,” she said.

Rocky Boiman, a former NFL linebacker, was watching the game next to his 9-year-old son, as he took notes to discuss the next morning on his radio talk show on 700 WLW in Cincinnati.

Injuries are commonplace in the NFL, Boiman admitted. It’s something he’s had to come to terms with while playing at Notre Dame and then during his multi-year professional career.

Ashley Boone (R) and her boyfriend have Bills season tickets. Boone expects Sunday to be a "very emotional game." (Photo courtesy of Ashley Boone)
Ashley Boone (R) and her boyfriend have Bills season tickets. Boone expects Sunday to be a "very emotional game." (Photo courtesy of Ashley Boone)

“In the back of your mind, you’re somewhat aware that you could see a broken leg, or a dislocated elbow, or maybe even a guy with a neck injury being put on a stretcher,” Boiman said. “But I don’t think any player is prepared to see one of their teammates lying on the field receiving CPR for nine-and-a-half minutes or having a defibrillator used on him. 

“That’s not something you’d expect in a million years,” he added.

Many viewed the Bills-Bengals matchup as a preview of the upcoming NFL postseason. Both teams were vying for the top seed in the AFC playoffs and home-field advantage up to the Super Bowl Glendale, Ariz.

Both the Bills and Bengals are approaching Week 18 as a tune-up for the playoffs.

Preparing for a big game heading is hard enough on players, Boiman said. He noted the Hamlin situation brings it to another level.

Players such as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow expressed uncertainty early in the week whether Sunday’s games would even be played.

“For most players, other players in the NFL, the Hamlin situation could possibly be in many of their minds, but I think that’s something that they can and will overcome,” said Boiman, who does color commentary for ESPN college football broadcasts. He stressed it’ll be a “completely different situation” for the Bills players.

“This is a guy they’ve been in practice with every day. They watch film with him. They may even hang out with him off the field,” he added. “It’s going to be a much tougher task for Bills to go out there and be focused on football on Sunday.”

From a fan’s perspective, receiving news that Hamlin was doing better on Thursday and Friday felt like “huge weight” off the shoulders, Boone said. She hopes it does the same for the Bills and Bengals this weekend.

“It puts so much of our minds as fans at ease, and I can’t even imagine for the players,” she said. “We were also emotionally invested in Damar’s condition, pulling for him and praying for him, that it’s really a relief that he seems like he may be OK.”

A red-and-blue NFL Sunday

Boone expects to see an outpouring of love for Hamlin in every stadium across the country this weekend — fan-made signs, No. 3 Hamlin jerseys and a number of other tributes. She heard on social media that people are bringing red hearts to the Bills game to show support for him.

On Friday, the NFL announced league-wide plans to show support for Hamlin. During warm-ups, all players throughout the league will wear black t-shirts displaying “Love for Damar 3.” Bills players will have similar shirts in the team’s royal blue and hats embroidered with a “3.”

Hamlin’s teammates will also wear special jersey patches this week. 

Many stadiums across the league will have an outline of the “3” at each 30-yard line number on the field in blue or red, according to the NFL.

Boone expects the atmosphere in Orchard Park, N.Y. on Sunday to be “surreal.”

Justin Tompkins (left-most adult on the couch) has to attend a family birthday party on Sunday but says he and the rest of his family plan to find a way to watch the game. "There's no way we'd miss it," he said. (Photo courtesy of Justin Tompkins)
Justin Tompkins (left-most adult on the couch) has to attend a family birthday party on Sunday but says he and the rest of his family plan to find a way to watch the game. "There's no way we'd miss it," he said. (Photo courtesy of Justin Tompkins)

“This team has gone through so much this last week, and that they are ready and willing to play speaks to how dedicated this football team is to this community,” she said. “This game means so much to everybody.”

Justin Tompkins, 34, also of Niagara Falls, N.Y., has been a Bills season ticket holder the past few seasons but a fan of the team for his entire life.

Typically, he’d be at this weekend’s game, but he has a family birthday party on Sunday. The whole family plans to watch the game, though.

“There’s no way we’d miss it,” he said. “This one is for Hamlin. This one is for all of Buffalo, really. The emotion going into that game is going to be off the charts.”

It’s been a tough few years in Buffalo, Tompkins said. He noted the fatal snowstorm in December and the shooting at a grocery that claimed the lives of 10 people in May.

For the Bills, it’s been a difficult past few months as well — with the wife of Bills owner Terry Pegula, Kim Pegula, falling ill last year, the unexpected death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother, and Dane Jackson, a Bills defensive back, suffering a scary on-field injury earlier this season. 

Thankfully, Jackson is OK and should be in uniform on Sunday.

“The city deserves this,” Tompkins said. “We know the game is going to be crazy and everyone is going to be excited. This game is another opportunity for the fans to show support for Damar, the Bills and really, the entire city."

He expects Bills fans to show up en force at Highmark Stadium on Sunday.

“That’s Buffalo,” Tompkins said. “Everyone comes together. It’s going to be full-on support for Damar first and foremost, but also for his teammates. They’ve gone through a lot as well.”

From chaos to the playoffs

While Bills fans are focused on Sunday, Tompkins admitted it’s hard not to look ahead at the playoffs.

Going into Monday night, Buffalo needed a win against the Bengals to keep the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Bengals would have won home-field advantage up to the Super Bowl with two more wins and a loss by the Kansas City Chiefs.

With the cancellation of the game, the top ranking now belongs to Kansas City.

On Friday, the NFL approved several changes to the playoff format to accommodate the fact the Bills and Bengals won’t play a full 17-game schedule.

For instance, the league could play the AFC Championship game at a neutral site if either the Bills or Bengals qualify for it. And the location of a potential Bengals-Ravens wild-card match would come down to a coin toss if Baltimore wins in Cincinnati on Sunday.

King didn’t mince words when describing the new playoff scenario, going so far as to say the Bengals “got screwed." He believes the league’s postseason plan hurts Cincinnati’s chances of earning a return trip to the Super Bowl, describing the team as getting the “bad end of the deal.”

But with everything that’s taken place over the last week, things like seeding and game location don’t seem to matter as much, King said.

“There’s been so much uncertainty leading into this weekend that I think fans and players are happy to focus on playing football again,” he said. 

“A win on Sunday would be great though.”