The NFL world has been anything but normal since Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed Monday night in Cincinnati. While football games surely take the backseat to Hamlin’s health and well-being, a normal, full-slate of games is scheduled for Week 18.
That includes the New England Patriots traveling to Buffalo for a matchup with the Bills.
For New England, the matchup comes with massive implications. Win and they clinch the final AFC Wild Card spot. Lose and they face an uphill battle with help needed. But, inside Gillette Stadium, the important game suddenly doesn’t feel all too important.
“Everything revolves around [Damar] and his family and making sure that he’s okay,” Patriots quarterback Mac Jones said Thursday. “That’s what we’re really worried about. Obviously the game is the game, right? At the end of the day, we’re all here, we have a job to do, but really we’re just concerned about him, his family, and just trying to get updates and make sure he’s okay.
“To try and stay focused on the game, it’s a hard thing to do. It’s just one thing you have to do is focus on each day, and obviously send your prayers and also continue your routine as best you can. It’s definitely hard, but everything revolves around him and making sure he’s hopefully doing better.”
Throughout the week, Patriots coaches and players have had several team and individual talks about the situation, while also taking time to just talk about life in general. On the field, though, the team has held normal practices Wednesday and Thursday as they try to prepare for the Week 18 matchup.
“It’s been unalike a football week I’ve ever had here,” long-time captain David Andrews said Thursday. “It’s trying to prepare for a really good football team and a really big game. Obviously, everyone’s dealing with something and dealing with what’s been going on. Just glad to hear he’s doing better.
“I don’t think you can block it out. It’s part of it. It’s just like this week, it’s part of it, everyone’s dealing with it. We just have to do our best to move forward and get ready to play this game.”
“It’s been challenging,” Matthew Slater said Thursday about the week. “Certainly to witness something like that is one thing but then to prepare to go out on the field against the team who’s teammate had that happen to him is challenging in a number of ways. So, we’re navigating that as we proceed through the week and I think everyone’s trying the best they can to do their job and be prepared to play on Sunday. I’d be lying if I said it was an easy thing to do, cause it’s not an easy task. But we’re doing out best and taking it day-by-day.”
While all the focus rightfully continues to be centered around Damar, New England knows what’s at stake on the football field Sunday. Once the 1 p.m. ET kickoff takes place, the Patriots will be ready to match up against the team that’s been in their thoughts all week.
“It’s a big game,” Jones said. “At the end of the day there’s a lot of respect for the team we’re going against and obviously in the situation that they’re in it’s just being there for them however we can and we’ve done that all week.
“Obviously on the game, there’s a lot of emotions flying. That’s every game, but obviously this game very much so too. … When the kickoff starts you kind of just have to go out there and play and compete against a really good team.”
With everything happening off the field, Matthew Judon expects the competitiveness to be that of a normal game on the field.
“When we go out there, it’s going to be hard not to think about it but it’s not going to be hard to go out there and compete,” he said. “I think the Bills and our team are going to go out there and do the best we can with the circumstances and the situation at hand. But I don’t think it’s going to be any less competitive of a game.”
As the Patriots and Bills take the field at Highmark Stadium Sunday, the atmosphere — which is always top tier in Buffalo — will surely be like no other game on Sunday, especially after several positive updates surfaced regarding Hamlin’s status on Thursday.
“I’ve never played there without it being a great atmosphere,” Andrews said. “I think as a player you know what that atmosphere will probably be like, to some extent, and I think obviously they got to be feeling a lot better, like all of us here, with all those updates. … Hearing how the progress is going, it’s going to be a great environment. And it’s a big game.”
“I expect it to be something that I’ve never experienced before,” Slater added. “I’m sure it will be something that none of us have ever really experienced. We’ll cross that when we get to it and in the meantime just continue to pray that the Lord is with Damar and he continues to improve.”