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The Buffalo Bills will play for the first time after Damar Hamlin's collapse

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's the last Sunday of the NFL's regular season, normally a dramatic day as teams jockey for final playoff positions. But, of course, the past week leading up to this moment was anything but normal. The alarming cardiac arrest of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on the field shocked many across the nation and galvanized support for the 24-year-old athlete as he recovered. Today, perhaps the biggest game on the schedule is in Buffalo, where the Bills are playing for the first time since Hamlin's collapse during the Monday Night Football game. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins me. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha

RASCOE: So, Tom, let's first - let's start with Damar Hamlin. What's the latest on his condition?

GOLDMAN: I guess you can call it a recovery benchmark for our time, but he posted on social media yesterday for the first time since his collapse. And he said, in part, the love has been overwhelming. I'm thankful for every single person that prayed for me and reached out. If you know me, you know this only is going to make me stronger. Really, it's been a dramatic past couple of days. He had his breathing tube removed. He began talking, even FaceTimed his teammates. He's still listed in critical condition, but, you know, it's amazing, considering less than a week ago, his heart stopped during a game, then was restarted on the field. It's a testament to him being young, incredibly fit and someone who got extraordinary medical care from the seconds after he collapsed up until now.

RASCOE: So I guess we can feel a little more comfortable talking about football now, considering he is recovering or seems to be. As we mentioned, his team plays today, hosting the New England Patriots. Even though the Bills have talked about their spirits being lighter considering Hamlin's recovery, will it still be hard for them to go out and play?

GOLDMAN: You know, it might be. Football players have to push aside fear to play a violent game. But what they all witnessed with Hamlin was on another level - very traumatic. And when members of the Bills spoke publicly for the first time this week, quarterback Josh Allen said, it's hard not to let fear of what happened creep into your mind - and something they've had to battle this week. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOSH ALLEN: You know, we've been reassured this is the freakiest of freak accidents, and it took the worst possible timing for this to happen. But again, the mental aspect of it, going out on that field, if you have that thought, that's putting yourself at risk even more, putting your teammates at risk even more.

RASCOE: So, I mean, this is going to be - it's a Bills home game. It's going to be very emotional. But, you know, on the business of football, it's also going to be very meaningful as far as the playoffs for Buffalo, too, right?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it is right because the game where Hamlin collapsed, Buffalo versus the Cincinnati Bengals last Monday night, was ultimately canceled. That means those two teams will end up playing one less game than everyone else. They were both in the running for the top seed in their conference, especially Buffalo, which had the better record than Cincinnati. Now, Kansas City clinched that top seed in the conference with a win yesterday. But since Buffalo won't have the chance to match Kansas City's record and get the top seed, if Buffalo wins today and then plays Kansas City in the conference championship game in a few weeks, the NFL decided to try to even things out by playing that potential game at a neutral site.

RASCOE: And so I understand Cincinnati will also be affected by this special plan team owners approved.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. Cincinnati could be involved in a coin flip to decide the site of one of its playoff games. Now, the Bengals reportedly don't like it, but the NFL explains, you know, this is an unprecedented situation. Not everyone can be made completely whole after the Buffalo-Cincinnati cancellation. Rich McKay is chairman of the NFL competition committee. He talked about this on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RICH MCKAY: We never went down this path, and in this discussion of, you're going to create perfect equity - you're not. The object here was to mitigate the circumstance that we're faced with. It was the right thing to cancel, so this is how the proposal came about.

GOLDMAN: So, Ayesha, a potential neutral site, a potential coin flip, two rare scenarios growing out of a traumatic week in the NFL, a week that, amazingly, is ending well.

RASCOE: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.