It’s been 27 years since the last time the Buffalo Bills were in a conference championship game.
Following Saturday night’s 17-3, Divisional Round victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Bills are one win away from a Super Bowl berth for the first time since the 1993 season.
The Bills knocked off the Ravens, one of the most-successful teams over the last 20 years in the AFC, racking up 16 postseason wins and two Super Bowls since 2000, in a hard-fought, mostly-defensive battle.
In the week leading up to Saturday’s prime-time showdown, the main storylines were Josh Allen against Lamar Jackson, how the Bills defense would fare against Baltimore’s rushing attack, and Buffalo’s passing offense versus Baltimore’s secondary.
Well, the Bills shut down the Ravens’ run game. Buffalo’s offense put up enough points to win the game (with a little help from a Taron Johnson pick-six), and Allen out-performed his counterpart and 2018 NFL Draft classmate, en route to earning his second career playoff win; the most of any quarterback from that draft class.
Allen didn’t have his best game of the season, throwing for 206 yards on 23-of-37 passing and a touchdown. However, he played another clean game, committing no turnovers. Allen stayed composed throughout the duration of the contest, even when things weren’t completely going Buffalo’s way.
The elements also played a factor in Orchard Park on Saturday night. With high winds and cold temperatures, it was a tough night to kick the football.
Between Buffalo’s Tyler Bass and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, field goal kickers went just two-for-six, with each making just one-of-three attempts.
Lamar Jackson didn’t play the fourth quarter after suffering a concussion late in the third, when he appeared to hit his head on the ground while being tackled. It’s an unfortunate end to another great season from the former MVP, who earned his first postseason win over the Tennessee Titans last weekend.
For Allen, who now has two-career playoff wins under his belt, and the rest of the Bills, this magical 2020 season will continue on. Once again, it wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but, it moves them on to the next round.
The Bills will have to wait until the end of Sunday’s Divisional Round matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns before the team finds out its AFC Championship opponent.
If the Chiefs win, Buffalo will play at Kansas City next Sunday. If Cleveland wins, then the Bills will host the AFC title game for the first time since the 1993 playoffs.
Here are three quick observations from the Bills’ Divisional Round victory over the Ravens on Saturday:
1.) Bills defense gave quite an inspiring performance
Without a doubt, Johnson’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter is, and always will be the play of this game. That play just headlines a number of huge plays from the defense all night, which came up huge in a game where the group really needed to.
Go back to the first series of the game. The Ravens took the ball and drove right down the field on the opening possession, picking up first down after first down via the run.
On the 10th play of the drive, cornerback Levi Wallace sacked Jackson on first down, the first of the cornerback’s career and good for a loss of 11 yards. While the Ravens managed to pick those yards back up on 3rd-and-19, Wallace’s sack slowed down all the momentum Baltimore picked up on the drive, forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal attempt.
That 41-yard field goal attempt was missed by Justin Tucker, leaving the game scoreless at the time.
We continued to see the “bend, but don’t break” version of Buffalo’s defense more throughout the evening.
Even prior to Johnson’s pick-six, Baltimore was at Buffalo’s nine-yard line. Jackson had never thrown an interception in the red zone in his career prior to that pick, but the Bills defense made a nice read and caught a break.
Just one snap before Johnson’s interception, Jerry Hughes made a nice play as well. The veteran defensive end got pressure on Jackson on second down at the Bills’ nine-yard line, affecting the intended throw to the end zone and causing it to fall incomplete.
Even late in the game, when Buffalo was ahead by two scores and the Ravens began getting close to end zone in the final minutes, the Bills defense shut the door again.
Tyler Huntley, Jackson’s replacement, got Baltimore all the way down to Buffalo’s 10-yard line. However, Huntley’s pass to the end zone for tight end Mark Andrews on 4th-and-goal with 2:41 left fell incomplete after a nice break-up by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
All night, the defense made the big plays when it needed to, and the unit accomplished the overall goal of shutting down Baltimore’s run game. The Ravens finished with 150 total rushing yards as a team; 41 yards below their regular season average of 191.9 rushing yards per-game. Even prior to the injury, Jackson was kept in check, running for only 34 yards on nine carries.
The Ravens didn’t have a single player run for over 50 yards against Buffalo. Running backs J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards both finished with 42 rushing yards a piece on 10 respective carries.
Whether the Bills face off against the high-powered offense of the Kansas City Chiefs or the dominant rushing attack of the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Championship Game, their opponent will have to prepare for a defense that’s coming off one of its best games, if not the best, all season.
2.) A huge third quarter made the difference
Through the first half of the season, the Bills struggled a lot in third quarters. Buffalo seemed to come out sluggish each week after halftime, and it usually led to a lapse in play.
However, the Bills have greatly improved their third quarter play in the games since the bye week back in November, and the trend continued against Baltimore.
After holding Baltimore to a game-tying field goal at the end of the second quarter, the Bills took control right back at the start of the third, receiving the opening kick of the second half and going on an 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive in 5:31 of game time.
The touchdown, a three-yard catch-and-run score from wide receiver Stefon Diggs, gave Buffalo a 10-3 lead and the Bills didn’t look back from there.
It looked like the quarter was going to end with the Ravens scoring a touchdown and knotting the game at 10-10. However, in the final minute, Johnson stepped up and intercepted Jackson’s pass, taking it the length of the field the other way for a touchdown.
It was Buffalo’s first defensive touchdown in the postseason since 1996, and tied for the longest interception return touchdown in NFL playoff history.
There wasn’t very much changing of possession in the third quarter. The Bills took up the first five-and-a-half minutes with their touchdown drive, while Baltimore used up nearly the next nine minutes on the drive that ended in Johnson’s touchdown with 41 seconds left in the frame.
Being down two scores in the final quarter, along with their star quarterback out for the game with a concussion, it was too much for Baltimore to overcome. Buffalo hit them with gut punches at the start and end of the third quarter, and they were able to ride out the rest of the game with relative ease.
3.) This run just keeps getting better - and a bit more surreal
As the weeks go on, the wins pile up and the Bills keep doing things the team hasn’t done in decades, the harder it gets for me to really wrap my head around this whole thing.
The Buffalo Bills are a game away from the Super Bowl.
I don’t think it’s still fully registered in my head yet, even as we now move into early Sunday morning. The Bills are on the cusp of a championship.
Buffalo hasn’t seen anything like this since, what, the Sabres’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in both 2006 and 2007? Simply put, it’s different, it’s unfamiliar, and it’s really, really exciting.
The Bills just beat one of the league’s most consistent teams over the last 20 years to reach the AFC Championship Game, and they got the best of one of the NFL's biggest stars - the reigning MVP - to get there.
Sunday will be fun watching Kansas City and Cleveland, seeing whether the Bills will head to Missouri next weekend for a date with the defending Super Bowl champions, or if they’ll host the Browns in the first conference title game in Western New York since the 1993 season.
Either way, the following Sunday (championship weekend) is going to get nuts.
The win over Baltimore wasn’t as thrilling as last weekend’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts, but I think that’s simply because it wasn’t a one-score game that came down to the final play. I’m okay with that.
Again, a win is a win in the playoffs. The ride continues. The Bills are still alive. They beat a damn good team to move on.
Bring on Kansas City or Cleveland.
While I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the Bills being two wins away from the city’s first-ever major professional sports championship, I’m ready for it. And I know all of Buffalo is too.