The Buffalo Bills punched their ticket to the AFC Championship game with a 17-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Bills head to Kansas City for a date with the defending champion Chiefs, with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
While this team has undoubtedly earned their way into this position, a good portion of my life has been spent with the Bills in a perpetual state of rebuilding so to see them in this position is a little surreal. Considering how good the team has been this season, it’s not surprising to see them make it to the conference championship but there’s a unique level of anxiety thanks to the franchise’s history. When the Bills missed a couple of opportunities downfield in the wind and were tied 3-3 with the Ravens at halftime, that anxiety was gaining momentum.
Buffalo did what they have done so well throughout the season and scored touchdown on their opening possession of the 2nd half. Stefon Diggs capped off the 11-play drive on a wide receiver screen that was obvious to everyone except the Ravens when the Bills’ trips personnel had the defense outnumbered. The quick recognition to get the ball to Diggs for that score was a welcomed sight and gave Buffalo an important edge in possession in a mostly defensive game. Still, the 10-3 lead felt tenuous and it felt like they should have been up by more than a score at that point.
As the Ravens strung together a 14 play drive of their own, deep into Bills’ territory, and ate up the remainder of the 3rd quarter in the process, that touchdown lead became critical. With a 3rd & goal from the Bills’ 9-yard line, the Ravens didn’t have much choice but to throw it into the end zone and Leslie Frasier had his defense ready. Buffalo showed man-to-man defense, which they’d used to help contain the run all game long, but dropped into what looked like a Cover-3 defense, and nickel cornerback Taron Johnson came up with the interception. It was crushing enough for the Ravens that Lamar Jackson never saw the defender but Johnson found daylight and took off, with a great lead block from Tre’Davious White, for the 101-yard TD to make it 17-3 Bills. It was a soul-stealing moment for Baltimore and the game was realistically over at that point but there was still a quarter to play.
The Ravens were clearly shaken as Patrick Mekari fumbled his second snap of the evening. Unfortunately, Jackson had to scramble to prevent a TD recovery for the Bills, and in the process of throwing the ball away, not only did he pick up an intentional grounding penalty, he took an awkward hit and left the game with a concussion. He wasn’t having a good game, but that was a shitty way for his season to end. In further evidence of the Bills having the best fans in the world, Bills Mafia started a fundraiser for Jackson’s charity and raised over $360K for Blessings in a Backpack which helps provide food for elementary school children in need. Ravens fans have since responded with donations to the Patricia Allen fund in honor of the Buffalo QB’s late grandmother. It’s refreshing to see two franchises, who are competing at the highest level, still have a healthy, competitive relationship.
Lamar was replaced by Tyler Huntley and (I don’t know what happened to Robert Griffin III or Trace McSorely) he looked pretty good, all things considered. You can’t fault Huntley for not bringing the Ravens back in the 4th quarter. If Jackson couldn’t crack the Buffalo defense, he wasn’t going to either. Credit where credit is due, the Bills’ defense played great. Frasier had his group disciplined and well prepared to contain the run. As I expected, Jackson and the Ravens’ passing attack wasn’t going to be able to beat the Bills through the air. Sports media hasn’t given the Bills’ defense much credit after a less than ideal start, but they’ve really picked up down the stretch.
In particular, Harrison Phillips gets a shout out from me for his performance in this game. He was drafted to eventually take over for perennial Pro Bowler and likely Hall of Famer Kyle Williams upon his retirement. However, Phillips has largely not lived up to those expectations over his three seasons in the NFL. Some among the Bills fans had even given him the nickname “Healthy Scratch” in reference to the number of games he missed without an injury designation. He’s even lost snaps to Justin Zimmer who’s also played really well down the stretch but was lower on the depth chart. If there was ever one game to change the narrative for Phillips, this was it.
I believe it was Ed Oliver who left the game with an injury while it was still close and Phillips had to step up and help shut down the league’s most dominant run game. Maybe phenomenal is too strong a word but Phillips played his ass off and looked like the dominant kind of defensive tacke that Williams once was. Buffalo has plenty of speed on defense but part of their issue with being a middle of the pack run defense during the season was a dominant presence in the middle of their defensive line. Maybe this game marked the turning point for Phillips, maybe it didn’t. However, if Oliver is still hurt then those snaps are going to be available and if he plays anything like he did against the Ravens, Harrison will be a healthy scratch no more.
The wind conditions really nerfed two offenses that were putting up more than 30-points per game during their win streaks. Allen was still effective throwing the ball, although there was another scray fumble from hanging in the pocket too long. Diggs still feasted. There were some downfield throws that sailed once they hit the jet stream, but the underneath stuff was there and those two capitalized. Watching these guys play together has been so much fun, and despite playing a whole bunch of the best defenses in the league, nobody has been able to hold them down just yet.
Performance Grade: B+
The Bills take on the Chiefs in Kansas City, with or without Patrick Mahomes, for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I’d like Mahomes to play because I want the Bills to beat them at their best. Plus, the sports media narrative will undoubtedly take credit from Buffalo if they beat KC with Chad Henne under center. I also want the league to be fair and not break their own rules just because Mahomes is their superstar, but I won’t complain if he doesn’t suit up.