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'Bend but don't break' | Bills players react to a dominant defensive outing against Baltimore

Micah Hyde (23), Taron Johnson (24), and Tre'Davious White (27) Buffalo Bills vs Baltimore Ravens, Divisional Playoff Game, January 16, 2021 at Bills Stadium.  
Photo by Sara Schmidle
Micah Hyde (23), Taron Johnson (24), and Tre'Davious White (27) Buffalo Bills vs Baltimore Ravens, Divisional Playoff Game, January 16, 2021 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Sara Schmidle

Before Taron Johnson dashed 101 yards into Buffalo Bills lore, he considered settling for a touchback.

Johnson intercepted Lamar Jackson in the Buffalo end zone during the third quarter of the Bills' Divisional Round matchup with the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, which to that point had been a low-scoring affair dictated by defensive play and cold, windy conditions.  

The takeaway prevented the Ravens from tying the score, 10-10. To take a knee would have been the prudent choice.

"That's exactly what I was thinking," Johnson said. "I caught the ball and I kind of looked down. But then I looked up and I just saw a whole bunch of green grass to the right side."

Johnson's return tied for the longest in NFL playoff history and stood as the defining moment of a statement performance by the Buffalo defense, which held the Ravens to three points on a night when the Bills' offense turned in an uncharacteristically low-scoring outing.

The 17-3 victory sent the Bills to the AFC Championship for the first time since 1994. Stefon Diggs described what he'd learned about his defense afterward.

"That bend, don't break * is real," he said.

Here are more of the top quotes on a dominant outing by the Bills defense.

"Kneel it!"

Johnson wasn't the only one thinking touchback when he picked off Jackson. Jon Feliciano was shouting the same thing on the sideline.

"At first I was like, 'Kneel it!'" Feliciano said. "And then I was like, 'Oh, crap, run!' What a great play by him. Man, we needed that."

Johnson watched Jackson's eyes as the quarterback stepped up in the pocket and attempted to find tight end Mark Andrews in the middle of the end zone. The cornerback jumped the route, kept his balance as he eluded a diving Andrews, and weaved right before sprinting for the end zone. Tre'Davious White provided the finishing block on Jackson.

Micah Hyde chased Johnson down from behind and tackled him into NBC's "Showtime Cam" behind the Baltimore end zone.

"Knowing Taron, he probably doesn't even know how crazy good of a play, how good of a play that was," Hyde said. "… Put us up by two touchdowns and forced them to kind of get out of their offense they normally do and start to throw the football. And that's what we talked about all week is making them do that. It was a hell of a play by Taron."

The play was reminiscent of Buffalo's last turn in primetime on NBC, against the Steelers in Week 14. Johnson returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception for a touchdown in that game.

"Taron was just in his spot and he made a play on the football, made a hell of a play on the football and then he took it 99 yards to the crib," said safety Jordan Poyer. "That play definitely changed the game.

"I tell Taron all the time, he's the best nickel in the league and I truly believe that from the bottom of my heart. He does so many things for this defense. He tackles well, he covers, makes plays with the football. So, we're lucky to have a guy like Taron."

"We stepped up to the challenge"

Johnson said he was aware of questions entering the game about whether the Bills would be able to contain the Ravens' top-ranked run offense, led by the dynamic Jackson.

"We heard a lot of buzz that our run defense wasn't that good but I feel like we showed that today and kept points off the board," he said. "… I'm just proud of our guys. We stepped up to the challenge."

After holding Jackson to 40 rushing yards during their regular season meeting last year, the Bills once again showed the discipline to limit the quarterback's damage with his legs. Jackson amassed just 34 yards on nine attempts before exiting the game with a possible head injury at the end of the third quarter.

Buffalo leaned heavily on its base defense and looked to apply pressure, which they were able to do on 36.6 percent of Baltimore's dropbacks according to Next Gen Stats.

"I thought our coach did a hell of a job of preparing us to play this offense," Poyer said. "We had a hell of a week of preparation. Guys were locked in. … Everybody had to do their job. Everybody had an assignment each and every play. We knew they might have gashed a couple runs but at the end of the day we were able to bow up and then make the play we needed to."

Jerry Hughes, who had a team-high seven pressures, credited receiver Isaiah McKenzie with simulating Jackson's threat during the week of practice.

"I think that gave us an excellent look," Hughes said. "Somebody with the right amount of speed, because he's probably just as fast, if not faster than Lamar. He's quick so throughout the week of practice it allowed us to really gauge our sights on how fast this quarterback will be and what he can do with his arm."

"We're not done yet"

Hours after making the biggest play of his life, Johnson had his sights set on a bigger prize. A win next week would send the Bills to the Super Bowl.

"We're excited," he said. "It's not done yet. We're not done yet. We're trying to get to the big show."