By Arnie Leshin
To the Green Bay Packers and its long-time starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it’s old hat. To the Buffalo Bills and their long-time draught, it’s been a long haul, as both came out of Saturday’s division playoffs with one more game to go in quest of the National Football League’s bigger prize, the Super Bowl.
In the low temperature opener in Green Bay that matched NFC rivals, the 10-point favored Pack got behind another passing display by Rodgers to dispose of the defensive-minded Los Angeles Rams, 32-18, and will now await the Sunday winner of the 5th-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit to the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the overall top seed. If the Bucs can pull off this upset, it will travel to Green Bay. If it’s 9-point favorite KC emerging victorious, the conference final will be played in Kansas City.
In the AFC closer at chilly, windy Orchard Park, 2nd-seeded Buffalo took the field as the lone underdog of the four home teams, versus the 4-point favorite Baltimore Ravens, and showed their displeasure by shutting down Baltimore and breaking away from a 3-3 halftime tie to claim a convincing 17-3 victory before about 9,000 limited coronaviruspandemic fans in the stands as the temperature dropped to 28 degrees at kickoff and the wind did a number on the passing game.
Except that Bills’ third-year quarterback Josh Allen did just fine by tossing for two third quarter touchdowns, and completing 23 for 37 passes and 206 yards. But for Ravens option quarterback Lamar Jackson, it wasn’t much of a day. He got off some gutsy runs with the defense in his face, but was only 14 for 24 for 162 yards through the air and 8 for 66 along the ground. Midway through the third quarter after the home side took a 17-3 lead, he was rushed in the end zone, flung the ball illegibly with no receiver in sight, and was then helped off the field with fear of a concussion.
He never returned after he was led to the locker room and barely used back-up Tyler Huntley took over. At first he had trouble with the Buffalo blitz, then got off some short runs and connected on some passes. But the points his team scored was on 34-yard field goal in the second quarter, not long after the Bills took a 3-0 lead on their 28-yard field goal. Then Allen settled in once the second half was underway.
First, the former University of Wyoming signal-called moved the team 68 yards in eight plays before tossing a 3-yard throw to Stephan Diggs in the end zone. The point-after was good and it was now 10-3. Next, Huntley, on a drive that went 73 yards on 11 plays, fired a third down pass into the end zone and Buffalo’s Taron Johnson picked it off a yard into the end zone and sped a playoff record-tying 101 yards to up the lead to 17-3 after the PAT.
That was the final straw. It was not Baltimore’s day and Buffalo gained its first conference final since 2007, lost, and now looks for its first return to the Super Bowl since 1994 when it lost four-straight, a loss on a missed field goal on the final play, then dominated by the former Washington Redskins and twice by the Dallas Cowboys. But first the Bills will have to get past Cleveland or Kansas City, either home or away.
Diggs reeled in eight passes for 106 yards and the touchdown. Along the ground, teammate Marquis Brown added 62 yards on eight carries. Buffalo had the advantage in total yards, 340-220, in rushing, 150-32, while the Ravens had a slight lead, 190-188, through the air lanes. Huntley wound up with six completions on 13 tries for 60 yards and 9 for 34 running the ball. Baltimore finished at 12-6 and made the post-season on a late run that got it in and the Miami Dolphins out. The joyous Bills are now 15-3.
The Rams (10-7), who came out of a late slump to eliminate division champion and division rival Seattle Seahawks, counted on their top-ranked defense to contain Rodgers, and they managed a 3-3 deadlock after one quarter and then trailed 19-10 at halftime. Quarterback Jared Goff, playing with an injured thumb on his throwing hand, then drove his team to a touchdown, added the 2-point conversion, and the deficit was cut to 25-18 after three quarters.
Green Bay, which had the upper hand in about every phase of the game, then got behind league Most Valuable Player favorite Rodgers and he engineered an insurance touchdown capped by a 16-yard sideline run by Aaron Jones, who finished with 99 yards on 14 carries. Rodgers ran a yard for the third-quarter Packers TD, but the PAT sailed wide left. The 11-year veteran, who now goes against Drew Brees and the 2nd-ranked New Orleans Saints or Tom Brady and the 5th-ranked Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
was good on 23 of 46 attempts for 296 yards.
In time of possession, Green Bay had a huge advantage, 36:07-24:10. In first downs, the Packers picked up 28 to 17 for LA. In total yards, Green Bay also dominated, 484-244, in rushing, 188-96, and in total plays, 70-40. Nether team had a turnover. The Pack now owns a 14-5 mark as it tries to gain yet another Super Bowl. As did Buffalo, Green Bay allowed a limited 10,000 or so fans in the stands as a COPID-19 restriction.
In the Sunday opener scheduled for 1:05 on CBS, it’s the Browns (12-5) at the Chiefs (14-2, who are a 10-point favorite,
In the closer slated for 4:40 kickoff on FOX, Brady’s Bucs (11-5) visits Brees’ Saints (12-4) in the New Orleans Superdome. In two previous meetings of the division rivals, the Saints won via double digits both times. This time it is favored by 7. For the Bills, they don’t mind if they are again the underdog, as long as they win and reach their long-awaited goal. For Green Bay, it could be the favorite again, whether versus New Orleans or Tampa Bay.
The proven old timers, Rodgers, Brees and Brady, are still in the mix, Rodgers with hopes for another Super Bowl as his final years wind down, Brees to get there in what could be his final season, and Brady, the owner of six Super Bowls while a New England Patriot, looks for his first in Tampa Bay.