PARK ORCHARD, N.Y. ——Taron Johnson practically stole the show in what was meant to be a showdown between Josh Allen of Buffalo and Lamar Jackson of Baltimore.
If not for the wall separating the field from the stands in the back of the east end zone, after returning an interception 101 yards for a touchdown that propelled Buffalo to its first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years, the Bills cornerback could still be going.
In a divisional-round playoff game Saturday night, Johnson’s pick-6 of Jackson’s pass with 41 seconds left in the third quarter helped secure a 17-3 victory over the Ravens.
“We’re delighted. It’s not done yet, we’re not done yet,’ exclaimed Johnson. “It is merely a gift. To the challenge, our security stepped up.
The return of Johnson was the longest in the history of the NFL and punctuated a spectacular defensive outing in which Buffalo (15-3) held the top rushing offense of the NFL to 150 yards on 32 carries.
Jackson, the NFL MVP of last season, was sacked three times and did not return after sustaining a concussion after the third quarter’s final play, and two plays after Johnson scored. He finished 14 of 24 for 162 yards passing, while on nine carries he was limited to 42 yards rushing.
This year, Allen, a candidate for MVP, ended 23 of 37 for 206 yards and a touchdown.
The third-year quarterback was pleased to see Buffalo’s defense make a difference in a game in which the pass-happy attack was kept largely in check during a season in which the Bills relied mostly on their explosive Allen-led offense to outscore opponents.
“Allen said, “I can’t say enough words for what that game was for our defense. “Taron Johnson’s is a game that people here in Buffalo will remember for a long time, possibly a franchise-altering game.”
For the first time since 1994, the Bills advanced to the AFC championship game on their way to making their four consecutive Super Bowl appearance and losing it. Buffalo also extended a season in which it has broken numerous droughts by claiming its first AFC East division title in 25 years and winning its first post-season game since the same year with last week’s victory over Indianapolis.
The Bills have won eight straight to equal their best run since 1990, and on Sunday they will face the winner of the other AFC divisional playoff between Cleveland and Kansas City.
After leading the NFL for a second straight year in yards rushing, the fifth-seeded Ravens (12-6) saw their season come to an end.
In three years, Baltimore clinched its third playoff berth by winning its final five regular-season matches. The winning streak came in a game rescheduled three times due to COVID-19 problems after a 1-4 skid capped by a 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2.
“It’s a sad moment, but there’s been a lot of this team,” said Mark Andrew, tight end. “Right now, it’s tough, but teammates and coaches and camaraderie, it was a group of special guys who worked hard, came to work every day and didn’t take anything for granted. We’re going to keep our heads high and come back and work.”
After the first half, tied at 3, the Bills took charge in the third quarter.
To cap an 11-play, 66-yard opening drive, Buffalo went ahead 10-3 on Allen’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs.
On their next drive, which ended with Johnson’s interception, the Ravens threatened to respond. Johnson jumped in front of the pass intended for Andrews and took off the right sideline with Baltimore facing third-and-goal from the 9. He followed teammate Tre’Davious White, who ensured that Jackson did not have an angle to push Johnson out of bounds.
Johnson, who also returned an interception for a score on Dec. 13 in a 26-15 win over Pittsburgh, said he originally thought of going down after catching the ball, before noticing no one in front of him.
“I caught the ball and looked down a bit, but then I looked up and saw that side of me with a whole bunch of green grass,” he said. “There’s one person I have to beat at that point. And that’s No. 8 (Jackson).”
In Green Bay’s 28-24 victory over Detroit in a wild-card playoff on Jan. 8, 1994, Johnson’s interception return matched Packers defensive back George Teague’s INT return.
For Baltimore, things turned worse two snaps later, when Jackson was forced out of the game.
Center Patrick Mekari snapped the ball over Jackson’s head, facing second-and-10 at Baltimore’s 25. The quarterback turned and hunted down the bouncing ball inside the 5, turned and threw it away quickly as Tremaine Edmunds had him by the legs and Trent Murphy fell on top of him.
After being promoted off the practice squad, Jackson’s injury left Tyler Huntley to finish the game.
“I’m not at all frustrated,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in announcing a concussion sustained by Jackson. “The players are disappointed. It’s hard to lose a game. Our guys played like crazy, and you’re going to feel it if you don’t win the game.”
Gusting winds with the kickers played havoc.
Before hitting a 34-yard attempt, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, the most accurate NFL kicker, hit the left upright from 41 yards and the right upright from 46 yards. It was the first time in the same game that he missed twice from within 50 yards.
Buffalo rookie Tyler Bass missed two of three field goal attempts, a wide right 43-yarder in the second quarter and a wide left 44-yarder with 5:30 remaining.
SQUAD TO PLAYOFFS PRACTICE
Huntley, who had attempted just five passes this season in two games, ended 6 of 13 on three drives for 60 yards, the last two of which Baltimore turned the ball over on downs.
UP NEXT, UP NEXT
Ravens: Over the season.
For the first time since 1994, they will face Cleveland or play Kansas City for the second time this season after a 26-17 loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 19. Bills: Advance to the AFC championship game.