1) The Divisional Round brought us a matchup sure to be a barn-burner Saturday night, with two of the NFL’s hottest teams clashing in western New York. Both ditched defensive tendency, leading to a slog of a first half in which each offense used the majority of the first two quarters to figure out what these defenses were doing while producing a combined total net yardage of 294 and converting just 4-of-12 third-down attempts. Buffalo’s change in approach came in its blitz frequency. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier bought into bringing the heat from the beginning, posting a blitz rate of 41.5% (per Next Gen Stats), a mark that finished well above Buffalo’s typical rate of 35% and was over 50% at one point late in the second quarter. Baltimore chose to do the opposite, blitzing on just 25.6% of Josh Allen drop-backs. Buffalo also committed to matching Baltimore’s two-back attack, going with a base personnel grouping on all 20 of Baltimore’s two-back plays in the first half, a massive reversal of tendency (Buffalo only used base personnel on 6 percent of defensive plays in the regular season). Each team struggled to find a rhythm as a result, making for a low-scoring affair and a 3-3 tie headed into the half.
2) The massive commitment to the blitz paid off for the Bills throughout the night, forcing the Ravens to find a different path to offensive success and shutting down Baltimore in the game’s most important sequence. Facing second and goal from Buffalo’s 9-yard line, Lamar Jackson dropped to pass as the Bills rushed six. Jerry Hughes shot through the C gap on the right side as Baltimore’s line slid its protection to the left, leaving rookie running back J.K. Dobbins alone to pick up the blitz. Dobbins whiffed and Hughes ended up in Jackson’s face, forcing the quarterback to fling a pass short of Marquise Brown, who was wide open near the goal line. The very next play, Buffalo sent a base rush of four, giving Jackson time to survey and lock onto tight end Mark Andrews, who appeared to be open in Buffalo’s Cover 2 zone defense. Jackson never saw nearby defender Taron Johnson, though, and the defensive back slipped under the pass, intercepted it and returned it 101 yards for a decisive pick-six, rocketing Buffalo’s win probability from 63 to 93% in one play. Buffalo finds itself in a 10-10 tie a play earlier if not for the Hughes pressure, a prime example of the effectiveness of Frazier’s game plan Saturday night. The increased heat harassed Jackson frequently (posting a pressure rate of 36.6%) and limited Dobbins and Gus Edwards to 84 combined rushing yards on 20 carries. The blitz won the Bills a playoff game, plain and simple.
3) The Ravens hit the field in Buffalo and never quite looked comfortable or like themselves on Saturday night. Justin Tucker missed two of his three field-goal attempts, clanging each of his first two tries off opposite uprights. Ravens pass-catchers morphed into their late-season Pittsburgh counterparts, dropping multiple targets and failing to make contested catches, and Jackson averaged just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, gaining 15 of his 34 total yards in one run. The same was true of Edwards, who gained 22 of his 42 yards on his first two carries to start the game, and Dobbins dropped two passes while also failing to pick up Hughes’ blitz in a spot that proved crucial. The usually resilient Ravens melted down at the end of the third quarter, starting with Jackson’s pick-six and continuing with a botched snap that saw Jackson penalized for intentional grounding and forced out of the game due to a concussion. And speaking of snaps, center Patrick Mekari struggled significantly, making mistakes on multiple attempted deliveries of the ball to Jackson, forcing the quarterback to improvise a handful of times and ultimately leading to his early exit. The combined miscues left the Ravens walking off the field in Orchard Park looking up at a final scoring output of a measly three points, even after outgaining Buffalo (340-220), dominating time of possession (35:33-24:27) and converting more third downs (41.1 to 30.7%) than the Bills. They’ll have many months to reflect on their missed opportunities.
— Nick Shook