On a windy night in Buffalo in which kicks and passes alike floated into the unknown, the fifth-seeded Baltimore Ravens and second-seeded Buffalo Bills earned every point they could get. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs scored the game's first touchdown and Bills defensive back Taron Johnson's electric 101-yard interception return for a score essentially sealed it, as the Ravens' comeback bid saw Lamar Jackson injured in the fourth quarter. It all added up to the Bills defeating the Ravens, 17-3, on Saturday to advance to their first AFC Championship Game since the 1993 season, where they'll face the Chiefs.
1) The Divisional Round brought us a matchup sure to be a barn-burner Saturday night, with two of the NFL's hottest teams clashing in Western New York. Both ditched defensive tendency, leading to a slog of a first half in which each offense used the majority of the first two quarters to figure out what these defenses were doing while producing a combined total net yardage of 294 and converting just 4 of 12 third-down attempts. Buffalo's change in approach came in its blitz frequency. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier bought into bringing the heat from the beginning, posting a blitz rate of 41.5 percent (per Next Gen Stats), a mark that finished well above Buffalo's typical rate of 35 percent and was over 50 percent at one point late in the second quarter. Baltimore chose to do the opposite, blitzing on just 25.6 percent of Josh Allen drop-backs. Buffalo also committed to matching Baltimore's two-back attack, going with a base personnel grouping on all 20 of Baltimore's two-back plays in the first half, a massive reversal of tendency (Buffalo only used base personnel on 6 percent of defensive plays in the regular season). Each team struggled to find a rhythm as a result, making for a low-scoring affair and a 3-3 tie headed into the half.
2) The massive commitment to the blitz paid off for the Bills throughout the night, forcing the Ravens to find a different path to offensive success and shutting down Baltimore in the game's most important sequence. Facing second-and-goal from Buffalo's 9-yard line, Lamar Jackson dropped to pass as the Bills rushed six. Jerry Hughes shot through the C gap on the right side as Baltimore's line slid its protection to the left, leaving rookie running back J.K. Dobbins alone to pick up the blitz. Dobbins whiffed and Hughes ended up in Jackson's face, forcing the quarterback to fling a pass short of Marquise Brown, who was wide open near the goal line. The very next play, Buffalo sent a base rush of four, giving Jackson time to survey and lock onto tight end Mark Andrews, who appeared to be open in Buffalo's Cover 2 zone defense. Jackson never saw nearby defender Taron Johnson, though, and the defensive back slipped under the pass, intercepted it and returned it 101 yards for a decisive pick-six, rocketing Buffalo's win probability from 63 to 93% in one play. Buffalo finds itself in a 10-10 tie a play earlier if not for the Hughes pressure, a prime example of the effectiveness of Frazier's game plan Saturday night. The increased heat harassed Jackson frequently (posting a pressure rate of 36.6%) and limited Dobbins and Gus Edwards to 84 combined rushing yards on 20 carries. The blitz won the Bills a playoff game, plain and simple.
3) The Ravens hit the field in Buffalo and never quite looked comfortable or like themselves on Saturday night. Justin Tucker missed two of his three field-goal attempts, clanging each of his first two tries off opposite uprights. Ravens pass-catchers morphed into their late-season Pittsburgh counterparts, dropping multiple targets and failing to make contested catches, and Jackson averaged just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, gaining 15 of his 34 total yards in one run. The same was true of Edwards, who gained 22 of his 42 yards on his first two carries to start the game, and Dobbins dropped two passes while also failing to pick up Hughes' blitz in a spot that proved crucial. The usually resilient Ravens melted down at the end of the third quarter, starting with Jackson's pick-six and continuing with a botched snap that saw Jackson penalized for intentional grounding and forced out of the game due to a concussion. And speaking of snaps, center Patrick Mekari struggled significantly, making mistakes on multiple attempted deliveries of the ball to Jackson, forcing the quarterback to improvise a handful of times and ultimately leading to his early exit. The combined miscues left the Ravens walking off the field in Orchard Park looking up at a final scoring output of a measly three points, even after outgaining Buffalo (340-220), dominating time of possession (35:33-24:27) and converting more third downs (41.1 to 30.7%) than the Bills. They'll have many months to reflect on their missed opportunities.
4) We can't reflect on this game without pointing out the influence of the elements. The wind was whipping throughout Bills Stadium on Saturday, likely contributing to Tucker's misses (Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward it was "very impactful") and also sending Allen's deep passes into the vast expanse of open field beyond the reach of any human in pursuit of them. What looked to be a trip back in time to Allen's rookie season -- in which he'd become known for sailing a pass or three from a clean pocket beyond the realistic reaches of his intended targets -- might have actually been a product of the wind, especially after an end zone angle showed an Allen attempt for an open Stefon Diggs veering right nearly 10 yards beyond the receiver. Bills kicker Tyler Bass also struggled with his field-goal attempts, missing his final two tries in a forgettable night for those making money with their foot. Buffalo won, though, because it adjusted to the environment. The Bills scored their only offensive touchdown on a screen pass to Diggs from 3 yards out, and Allen's passing chart ended up looking like 15-yards-and-in target practice, with the quarterback completing just one attempt beyond 15 yards in the entire night.
As evidenced by Next Gen Stats' tweet above, the quick-fire game worked for Allen, who completed 12-of-15 attempts for 79 yards and the touchdown to Diggs on passes released in under 2.5 seconds. His arm strength prevailed in targeting out-breaking routes and wide-aligned receivers, making for a tough go for Ravens defenders trying to break up his darts to teammates. And with Baltimore's lack of manufactured pressure factored in, the biggest challenge for Allen ended up not being those dressed in purple pants, but Mother Nature and her unforgiving winter ways. That was enough for the former Wyoming Cowboy to overcome, even if it didn't produce the scoring explosion Bills fans have become accustomed to in this dream season.
5) (Editor's Note: Buffalo will play at Kansas City, which defeated Cleveland on Sunday, in the AFC Championship Game) The Bills will enjoy their 24 hours of sweet victory and spend a day off watching Sunday's Divisional Round doubleheader finale to learn who and where they'll be playing next weekend. If the Chiefs prevail, the Bills will travel to Kansas City for their first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 1993 season. If the Browns pull off the upset, the Bills will host the AFC Championship Game for the first time since -- you guessed it -- the 1993 season. Regardless of opponent, Buffalo will be on cloud nine for the entire week with full faith and confidence in its Bills, who won Saturday in a style entirely different from the one they've displayed for most of 2020. They have plenty of reason to spend the week singing a tune known by Bills fans all over:
"I've got a feeling,
Buffalo's going to the Super Bowl."