ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — In what was supposed to be an NFL postseason showdown of young star quarterbacks — the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen and the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson — Taron Johnson stole the spotlight by stealing the ball.
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 berth 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 on Saturday night in the divisional round of the playoffs.
"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 rushing offense to 150 yards on 32 carries.
Jackson, the league MVP of the 2019 season, was sacked three times and did not return after sustaining a concussion following the final play of the third quarter, two plays after Johnson scored. The dual threat who rushed for 1,000 yards the past two regular season finished 14-of-24 passing for 162 yards against the Bills while being limited to 42 yards on nine carries.
Allen, an MVP candidate this year, finished 23-of-37 for 206 yards with a touchdown.
After a regular season when the Bills relied mostly on their dynamic Allen-led offense to outscore opponents, the third-year pro — like Jackson, he is only 24 — was gratified to see Buffalo's defense make a difference in a game after 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."
Johnson's interception return matched Green Bay Packers defensive back George Teague's in a 28-24 win over the Detroit Lions in a wild-card playoff on Jan. 8, 1994.
The second-seeded Bills will play for the conference crown for the first time since the 1993 season, when they were on the way to their fourth consecutive appearance — and loss — in the Super Bowl. Buffalo also extended a season in which it has broken numerous droughts by securing its first AFC East division title in 25 years and, with last weekend's victory over the Indianapolis Colts, winning its first postseason game since the same year.
The Bills have also won eight straight games overall to match their best streak since the 1990 season.
The fifth-seeded Ravens, who opened the playoffs with a win against the Tennessee Titans, finish 12-6 after leading the NFL in rushing yards for a second consecutive year.
Baltimore clinched its third playoff berth in three years by winning its final five regular-season games. The streak came after a 1-4 skid capped by a 19-14 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 2, a game rescheduled three times due to COVID-19 protocol.
"It's a sad moment, but this team has been through a lot," Baltimore 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."
With the game tied at 3 after one half, the Bills took control in the third quarter, going 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 against the Steelers on Dec. 13, said he initially thought about going down after picking off Jackson before seeing his path was mostly clear.
"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)."
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. Huntley, who had thrown just five passes in two appearances this season, finished 6-of-13 for 60 yards on three series, the final two in which Baltimore turned the ball over on downs.
"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 this season, hit the left upright from 41 yards and the right upright from 46 yards before converting 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.