For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Buffalo Bills are headed back to the AFC Championship Game. Matched up with the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night, the conference’s No. 2-seeded contenders were not perfect in windy Orchard Park. Josh Allen and Co. managed just three points in an erratic first half, and even after Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson exited in the fourth quarter due to a concussion, the Bills nearly allowed rookie backup Tyler Huntley to pull Baltimore within one score. Still, Buffalo came up big when it counted, with Allen finding Stefon Diggs for the only offensive score of the night and Taron Johnson making NFL history with a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown — easily the most monumental play in a 17-3 Divisional Round victory.
Jackson, who was flagged for intentional grounding on his final play after a poor snap forced him toward his own end zone, struggled to lift the Ravens out of an offensive slump that was apparent from the get-go. Allen, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as deadly through the air as he’s often been during an MVP-caliber 2020 campaign but managed the ball well enough. The Bills’ defense, on the other hand, really showed out at home, logging two fourth-down stops and neutering one of the game’s top ground attacks to not only lead but preserve the win.
Here are some instant takeaways from Saturday night’s historic Bills victory:
Why the Bills won
That defense, man. It’s kind of funny how Sean McDermott’s prized unit basically took a back seat to Josh Allen’s rocket-armed offensive showcase this year, only to resurface here and almost literally win the Bills their first AFC title-game bid since 1993. Everyone played well, from Micah Hyde collapsing on wideouts to Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds containing Lamar Jackson to Tre’Davious White and Taron Johnson (!) suffocating the passing windows. Allen was good enough to manage the lead after connecting with Diggs to cap one of the night’s few seamless drives, and both Diggs and John Brown showed up, but this one was all about Buffalo’s “D.” Johnson will be a staple in Bills lore for that pick-six.
Why the Ravens lost
Their offense was sorely one-dimensional — and not even good in its one dimension. Greg Roman may have taken the NFL by storm when he unleashed Jackson as the centerpiece of a relentless rushing attack back in 2019, but boy did this whole operation look stale and stagnant. It didn’t help that Matt Skura seemingly forgot to snap at various points in the game, but from Jackson on down, the whole thing lacked pizzazz. Neither Jackson nor Gus Edwards nor J.K. Dobbins hit 45 yards on the ground, and No. 8’s occasional speed burst couldn’t make up for an aerial game that was non-existent aside from a few Marquise Brown cameos. Jackson leaving early wasn’t as troublesome as it could’ve been, with backup Tyler Huntley at least taking shots downfield, but make no mistake: This loss was squarely on Baltimore’s inability to do anything with the ball, especially during drives deep in Buffalo territory.
None other than the pick-six. The entire first half was ugly for both sides, but the Ravens finally appeared to be knocking on the door at the end of the third. Chewing up nearly nine minutes of clock on a 15-play drive all the way to Buffalo’s 9-yard line, Baltimore didn’t just fail to convert a third-and-goal end-zone shot, which would’ve tied the game had it gone in for a TD. It also gave the Bills an unthinkable momentum swing, not to mention six points, when Jackson inexplicably threw into triple coverage and saw Taron Johnson race the pick 101 yards to pay dirt. Up 17-3 after the takeaway, the Bills never looked back.
Play of the game
You should already know. Give it up for Johnson, who’s etched himself into the history books:
The Bills will take on the winner of Sunday’s Browns-Chiefs matchup in the AFC Championship, with a shot at representing the conference in the Super Bowl. The Ravens, meanwhile, will begin their 2021 offseason with some major questions about the sustainability of Roman’s offense and/or Jackson’s pocket-passing abilities.