By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — 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 defense 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 offense 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 offense to outscore opponents, the third-year quarterback was gratified to see Buffalo’s defense 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 defense,” 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.”
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 postseason 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.
“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, center 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.”
Gusting winds played havoc with the kickers.
Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, the NFL’s most accurate kicker, hit the left upright from 41 yards and the right upright from 46 yards, before hitting a 34-yard attempt. It was the first time he missed twice from inside 50 yards in the same game.
Buffalo rookie Tyler Bass missing two of three field goal attempts — a 43-yarder that was wide right in the second quarter and a 44-yarder that sailed wide left with 5:30 remaining.
PRACTICE SQUAD TO PLAYOFFS
Huntley, who had attempted just five passes in two appearances this season, finished 6 of 13 for 60 yards on three drives, the final two in which Baltimore turned the ball over on downs.
Ravens: Season over.
Bills: Advance to AFC championship game for first time since 1994, where they’ll face Cleveland or play Kansas City for a second time this season following a 26-17 loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 19.