Saturday's NFL: Packers, Bills advance to final four with 14-point victories

Steve Megargee
Associated Press

Green Bay, Wis. — Don’t tell Aaron Rodgers the lack of capacity crowds in a pandemic will limit the Green Bay Packers’ home-field advantage in the NFC championship game.

He’s been waiting too long for this moment to have any such negative thoughts.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers scores on a one-yard touchdown run past Los Angeles Rams' John Johnson during the first half.

Rodgers threw two touchdown passes and also ran for a score as the top-seeded Green Bay Packers beat the Los Angeles Rams 32-18 in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday. He will play a conference championship game at home for the first time in his Hall of Fame-caliber career.

“I’m definitely a little emotional, just thinking about what we’ve been through,” said Rodgers, who went 23 of 36 for 296 yards. “It got me emotional with the crowd out there today.”

Rodgers threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams and a game-clinching 58-yarder to Allen Lazard with 6:52 left. Rodgers also had a 1-yard touchdown run, the first by a Packers quarterback in a playoff game at Lambeau Field since Bart Starr’s winning sneak in the Ice Bowl against Dallas on Dec. 31, 1967.

The Packers (14-3) reached the NFC championship game for the fourth time in seven seasons as they chase their first Super Bowl berth in a decade. It will be their first NFC title contest at Lambeau Field since hosting for the 2007 season, when they fell to the New York Giants 23-20 in overtime.

Green Bay won the Super Bowl for the 2010 season as the NFC’s No. 6 seed, and has lost at Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco in its last three conference championship game appearances.

Saturday’s game showed what a home-field edge can mean. The Packers played in front of 8,456 fans – a crowd that included paying spectators for the first time all season – but that small crowd made plenty of noise as the Packers built an early lead amid snow flurries.

Rodgers said it felt like there were 50,000 fans. Running back Aaron Jones said it seemed more like 80,000, while Lazard added that “it felt like 90,000 honestly.”

That crowd chanted “M! V! P!” during the closing minutes to salute Rodgers.

“It’s hard to really put into words how special that feeling is, but you can feel it,” Rodgers said. “It’s so palpable. You can feel the energy in the stadium. It’s just different. It’s different playing in front of a crowd. It’s a little more special and obviously more sweet.”

Rodgers helped Green Bay’s potent offense overpower the Rams’ vaunted defense for much of the day. The Packers didn’t allow any sacks despite playing without injured All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, while Green Bay sacked Jared Goff four times.

Jones ran for 99 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries, including a 60-yard burst to open the second half. Rodgers called the Packers’ offensive linemen “the star of the game tonight.”

“Definitely not happy,” Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “A lot of the guys feel like it’s on them. ‘I messed up, or I failed you.’ Everybody had their hand in it. We just weren’t clicking on all cylinders.”

Goff was 21 of 27 for 174 yards and a touchdown less than three weeks after undergoing thumb surgery, and Cam Akers rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown.

The Packers scored on each of their first five series and led 25-10 early in the third quarter.

After the Rams (11-7) finally forced a punt midway through the third quarter, they capitalized with Akers’ 7-yard touchdown run on a direct snap. They cut it to 25-18 with a nifty 2-point conversion: Van Jefferson caught a pass from Goff and lateraled to Akers, who strolled into the left corner of the end zone.

The Rams forced another punt and got the ball at their 6, but Kenny Clark’s sack stalled the drive.

“I really thought that was going to be our chance to get back and potentially go drive and score and tie the football game up, and you never know what happens from there,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.

Green Bay’s A.J. Dillon fumbled on the ensuing series, but Rodgers recovered at the Packers 31 and advanced 3 yards. Three plays later, Rodgers hit Lazard, who caught the ball around the Rams 25 and raced into the end zone.

“We were definitely feeling a little bit of pressure,” Lazard admitted. ”I think it’s more so just our expectation is to go out and score every single drive because we know that the only people that are stopping us is us.”

Saturday's other game

(At) Buffalo 17, Baltimore 3: Taron Johnson could’ve kept running into next week on a 101-yard interception that carried the Buffalo Bills to their first AFC championship game appearance in 27 years.

Johnson’s pick-6 of Lamar Jackson’s pass with 41 seconds remaining in the third quarter secured the victory.

The interception return matched the longest in NFL history and punctuated a stellar defensive outing in which Buffalo (15-3) limited the NFL’s top running offense to 150 yards on 32 carries.

Jackson was sacked four times and did not return after being evaluated for a concussion following the final play of the third quarter, and two plays after Johnson scored.

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 down on top of him.

Jackson’s injury left Tyler Huntley to finish the game after being promoted off the practice squad.

Buffalo’s defense took the pressure off of a Josh Allen-led offense that was limited to 223 yards offense, and made up for rookie kicker 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.

The game was decided in the third quarter, when the Bills went up 10-3 on Allen’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to cap an 11-play, 66-yard opening drive.

Jackson responded by marching the Ravens 66 yards on 15 plays before throwing the interception while facing third-and-goal from the 9. Johnson jumped in front of the pass intended for Mark 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 over Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, said he initially thought about going down after catching the ball, before seeing no one in front of him.

“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).”

Johnson wasn’t touched until a mob of Bills players jumped on his back and brought him down in the end zone.

The Bills advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1994 on their way to making – and losing – their four consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Buffalo also extended a season in which it has broken numerous droughts by claiming its first AFC East division title in 25 years and, with last week’s victory over Indianapolis, winning its first postseason game since the same year.

The Bills will play the winner of the AFC’s other divisional playoff between Cleveland and Kansas City on Sunday.

Buffalo has won eight straight, matching its best streak since 1990. The 13 regular-season victories matched a franchise record set in both 1990 and ’91 in a season they set numerous single-season records on offense, including scoring 501 points.

The fifth-seeded Ravens (12-6) had their season come to an end after leading the NFL in yards rushing for a second consecutive year.

Baltimore clinched its third playoff berth in three years by winning its final five regular-season games. The winning streak came after a 1-4 skid capped by a 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 2 in a game rescheduled three times due to COVID-19 issues.

Johnson’s interception return matched Packers defensive back George Teague’s 101-yard fumble return in Green Bay’s 28-24 win over Detroit in a wild-card playoff on Jan. 8, 1994.

Jackson finished 14 of 24 for 162 yards passing, while being limited to 42 yards rushing on nine carries.

The Bills also limited Jackson to just 40 yards on 11 carries in the Ravens’ 24-17 win at Buffalo in Week 14 of the 2019 season.

Huntley, who had attempted just five passes in two appearances this season, finished 6 of 13 for 60 yards on three drives, the final two in which Baltimore turned the ball over on downs.

Allen was 23 of 37 for 206 yards passing.

“You saw our defense. The game plan our coaching staff put for that offense was unbelievable,” Allen said. “You don’t get style points for winning in the playoffs. You either go home or you advance to the next round. We’re on to the next one.”

A game that was supposed to highlight two dynamic third-year quarterbacks instead turned into a defensive struggle with the score tied at 3 after the first half.

The Ravens came up empty on two drives that ended inside Buffalo’s 30, with Justin Tucker missing his first two field goal attempts. He hit the left upright from 41 yards on Baltimore’s opening drive, and then hit the right upright on a 46-yard attempt in the second half.

It marked the first time Tucker, the NFL’s most accurate kicker, has missed twice from inside 50 yards in the same game. Tucker finally tied the score at 3 by hitting a 34-yard attempt with 4 seconds left in the first half to cap an eight-play, 57-yard drive