Bills advance to AFC championship for 1st time since 1994 with win over Ravens
Aaron Rodgers lifts Packers past Rams to reach NFC title game
In what was supposed to be a showdown between Buffalo's Josh Allen and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Taron Johnson literally stole the show.
If not for the wall separating the field from the stands in the back of the east end zone, the Bills cornerback might still be running after returning an interception 101 yards for a touchdown that propelled Buffalo to its first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years.
Johnson's pick-6 of Jackson's pass with 41 seconds remaining in the third quarter helped secure a 17-3 win over the Ravens in a divisional-round playoff game Saturday night.
"We're excited. It's not done yet, we're not done yet," Johnson exclaimed. "It's just a blessing. Our defence stepped up to the challenge."
Johnson's return matched the longest in NFL history and punctuated a stellar defensive outing in which Buffalo (15-3) limited the NFL's top running offence to 150 yards on 32 carries.
Jackson, last season's NFL MVP, was sacked three times and did not return after sustaining a concussion following the final play of the third quarter, and two plays after Johnson scored. He finished 14 of 24 for 162 yards passing, while being limited to 42 yards rushing on nine carries.
Allen, an MVP candidate this year, finished 23 of 37 for 206 yards and a touchdown.
In a season in which the Bills relied mostly on their dynamic Allen-led offence to outscore opponents, the third-year quarterback was gratified to see Buffalo's defence make a difference in a game the pass-happy attack was kept mostly in check.
"I can't say enough words for what that game was for our defence," Allen said. "Taron Johnson's is a play that people are going to remember for a long time here in Buffalo, potentially a franchise-altering play."
TARON JOHNSON PICK SIX‼️<br><br>📺 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BALvsBUF?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BALvsBUF</a>: <a href="https://t.co/VqXMJDH1vI">https://t.co/VqXMJDH1vI</a> <a href="https://t.co/WjuPWerVod">pic.twitter.com/WjuPWerVod</a>—@BuffaloBills
The Bills advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1994 on their way to making — and losing — their four consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Buffalo also extended a season in which it has broken numerous droughts by claiming its first AFC East division title in 25 years and, with last week's victory over Indianapolis, winning its first post-season game since the same year.
The Bills, have won eight straight to match their best streak since 1990 and will play the winner of the AFC's other divisional playoff between Cleveland and Kansas City on Sunday.
The fifth-seeded Ravens (12-6) had their season come to an end after leading the NFL in yards rushing for a second consecutive year.
Baltimore clinched its third playoff berth in three years by winning its final five regular-season games. The winning streak came after a 1-4 skid capped by a 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2 in a game rescheduled three times due to COVID-19 issues.
"It's a sad moment, but this team has been through a lot," tight end Mark Andrew said. "It's tough right now, but teammates and coaches and camaraderie, it was a group of special guys that worked hard, came to work every day and didn't take anything for granted. We're going to hold our heads high and come back and work."
Tied at 3 after the first half, the Bills took control in the third quarter.
Buffalo went ahead 10-3 on Allen's 3-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to cap an 11-play, 66-yard opening drive.
The Ravens threatened to answer on their next drive, which ended with Johnson's interception. With Baltimore facing third-and-goal from the 9, Johnson jumped in front of the pass intended for Andrews and took off up the right sideline. He followed teammate Tre'Davious White, who made sure Jackson didn't have an angle to push Johnson out of bounds.
Johnson, who also returned an interception for a score in a 26-15 win over Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, said he initially thought about going down after catching the ball, before seeing no one in front of him.
The definition of lit. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BudLightCelly?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BudLightCelly</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/budlight?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BudLight</a> <a href="https://t.co/Y6hLhMYmIE">pic.twitter.com/Y6hLhMYmIE</a>—@BuffaloBills
"I caught the ball and kind of looked down, but then I looked up and saw a whole bunch of green grass to that side of me," he said. "At that point, there's one person I have to beat. And that's No. 8 [Jackson]."
Johnson's interception return matched Packers defensive back George Teague's INT return in Green Bay's 28-24 win over Detroit in a wild-card playoff on Jan. 8, 1994.
Things turned worse for Baltimore two snaps later, when Jackson was forced out of the game.
Facing second-and-10 at Baltimore's 25, centre Patrick Mekari snapped the ball over Jackson's head. The quarterback turned and chased the bouncing ball down inside the 5, turned and quickly threw it away as Tremaine Edmunds had him by the legs and Trent Murphy fell on top of him.
Jackson's injury left Tyler Huntley to finish the game after being promoted off the practice squad.
"I'm not frustrated at all," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in announcing Jackson sustained a concussion. "The players are disappointed. It's tough to lose a game. Our guys played like crazy, and if you don't win the game you're going to feel it."
Aaron Rodgers lifts Packers past Rams to reach NFC title game
Don't tell Aaron Rodgers the lack of capacity crowds in a pandemic will limit the Green Bay Packers' home-field advantage in the NFC championship game.
He's been waiting too long for this moment to have any such negative thoughts.
Rodgers threw two touchdown passes and also ran for a score as the top-seeded Green Bay Packers beat the Los Angeles Rams 32-18 in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday. He will play a conference championship game at home for the first time in his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
"I'm definitely a little emotional, just thinking about what we've been through," said Rodgers, who went 23 of 36 for 296 yards. "It got me emotional with the crowd out there today."
Rodgers threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams and a game-clinching 58-yarder to Allen Lazard with 6:52 left. Rodgers also had a 1-yard touchdown run, the first by a Packers quarterback in a playoff game at Lambeau Field since Bart Starr's winning sneak in the Ice Bowl against Dallas on Dec. 31, 1967.
The Packers (14-3) reached the NFC championship game for the fourth time in seven seasons as they chase their first Super Bowl berth in a decade. It will be their first NFC title contest at Lambeau Field since hosting for the 2007 season, when they fell to the New York Giants 23-20 in overtime.
Aaron Rodgers has thrown multiple TD passes in 8 straight games, tied for the longest streak in NFL postseason history. He's tied with...Joe Flacco.<br><br>His 58-yard Pass TD to Allen Lazard is the longest Pass TD in the playoffs in Rodgers' career. <a href="https://t.co/CoHaW1nSd4">pic.twitter.com/CoHaW1nSd4</a>—@ESPNStatsInfo
Green Bay won the Super Bowl for the 2010 season as the NFC's No. 6 seed, and has lost at Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco in its last three conference championship game appearances.
Saturday's game showed what a home-field edge can mean. The Packers played in front of 8,456 fans — a crowd that included paying spectators for the first time all season — but that small crowd made plenty of noise as the Packers built an early lead amid snow flurries.
Rodgers said it felt like there were 50,000 fans. Running back Aaron Jones said it seemed more like 80,000, while Lazard added that "it felt like 90,000 honestly."
That crowd chanted "M! V! P!" during the closing minutes to salute Rodgers.
"It's hard to really put into words how special that feeling is, but you can feel it," Rodgers said. "It's so palpable. You can feel the energy in the stadium. It's just different. It's different playing in front of a crowd. It's a little more special and obviously more sweet."
Rodgers helped Green Bay's potent offence overpower the Rams' vaunted defence for much of the day. The Packers didn't allow any sacks despite playing without injured All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, while Green Bay sacked Jared Goff four times.
Jones ran for 99 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries, including a 60-yard burst to open the second half. Rodgers called the Packers' offensive linemen "the star of the game tonight."
"Definitely not happy," Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "A lot of the guys feel like it's on them. `I messed up, or I failed you.' Everybody had their hand in it. We just weren't clicking on all cylinders."
Goff was 21 of 27 for 174 yards and a touchdown less than three weeks after undergoing thumb surgery, and Cam Akers rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown.
The Packers scored on each of their first five series and led 25-10 early in the third quarter.
After the Rams (11-7) finally forced a punt midway through the third quarter, they capitalized with Akers' 7-yard touchdown run on a direct snap. They cut it to 25-18 with a nifty 2-point conversion: Van Jefferson caught a pass from Goff and lateraled to Akers, who strolled into the left corner of the end zone.
The Rams forced another punt and got the ball at their 6, but Kenny Clark's sack stalled the drive.
"I really thought that was going to be our chance to get back and potentially go drive and score and tie the football game up, and you never know what happens from there," Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Green Bay's A.J. Dillon fumbled on the ensuing series, but Rodgers recovered at the Packers 31 and advanced 3 yards. Three plays later, Rodgers hit Lazard, who caught the ball around the Rams 25 and raced into the end zone.
"We were definitely feeling a little bit of pressure," Lazard admitted. "I think it's more so just our expectation is to go out and score every single drive because we know that the only people that are stopping us is us."