It was at the moment Taron Johnson reached the end zone that the tables were no longer safe.
On the second drive out of halftime, the Bills cornerback picked off Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson on third-and-goal and ran the ball back 101 yards for the touchdown that gave the game its final score, 17-3. After a snoozy first half filled with botched snaps, overthrown passes, and missed field goals, the Bills had scored two quick touchdowns and put some space between themselves and their opponent.
It’s fitting that the deciding score was a defensive touchdown. Much of this Bills season has felt like a dream—Buffalo will play in the AFC championship game next Sunday for the first time in 27 years—but Saturday’s divisional-round game was an example of how they can still win when everything isn’t going right. A Bills defense that’s been hit by injury and regression this season, especially early on, had its best game of the year at an opportune time, holding the Ravens to a season-low three points while contributing Johnson’s pick-six.
Buffalo limited Baltimore by shutting down the passing game. The Bills blitzed Jackson heavily, often with six or more rushers bringing pressure to disrupt timing. Buffalo generated pressure on 36.6 percent of Baltimore’s drop-backs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Defensive end Jerry Hughes led the way with a team-high seven pressures, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier sent a variety of players, often defensive backs, at Jackson from multiple angles. Eleven different Bills players recorded at least one pressure during the game, according to Next Gen Stats.
The Bills generated pressure on 36.6% of dropbacks, led by Jerry Hughes who finished with a team-high 7 pressures.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 17, 2021
11 different Bills defenders generated at least one pressure. Hughes was the only Bills defender with more than three.#BALvsBUF | #BillsMafia
In coverage, cornerback Tre’Davious White shut down the Ravens’ top receiver, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. White shadowed Brown on 80 percent of his routes and held him to one catch for 30 yards on two targets. (White was also a major part of Johnson’s pick-six, since he caught Jackson from behind and tackled him before he could chase down Johnson.)
Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White shadowed Marquise Brown on 80% of Brown's routes tonight (32 of 40 routes).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 17, 2021
80% shadow rate
2 targets, 1 reception, 30 yards
6% press coverage (2 of 32 routes)#BALvsBUF | #BillsMafia
Baltimore was still effective running the ball—they finished with 150 yards rushing, making the Bills the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game by at least 14 points while being outrushed by at least 120 yards—but Buffalo seemed willing to give that up if Jackson and the offense struggled to move the ball through the air. Jackson, who left the game in the third quarter and did not return due to a concussion, finished 14-of-24 passing for 162 yards and no touchdowns. Overall, the Ravens converted only seven of 19 third- or fourth-down tries.
While the Bills’ offense has been flying high this season, the defense has struggled. Even good defenses that haven’t been overly helped by turnover luck regress at some point, and Buffalo’s fell from second to 16th in points allowed and from seventh to 12th in DVOA from last season to this one. Players like White and linebacker Matt Milano have missed parts of the season. That hasn’t mattered much given the progress the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen have made on offense, but it was significant that the defense regained some of its old form Saturday because of Buffalo’s unusual struggle to move the ball, especially in the first half. Allen finished 23-of-37 for 206 yards and one touchdown, a three-yard throw to Stefon Diggs on the drive right out of halftime—hardly spectacular but more than enough considering that the Bills’ defense outscored the Ravens on their own. Buffalo and Allen have defied enough of their own personal histories this season that the results, however impressive, feel less stable or reliable because they still feel so unusual. We keep waiting for it to all go wrong for the Bills. But reliable teams have multiple ways to win games. Buffalo advanced to the AFC championship game because its defense peaked at the best possible time. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by their success after all.