Taron Johnson's pick six is among the seven greatest plays in Bills playoff history
We are all guilty of recency bias because so often, what just happened jumps right to the top of our list of the greatest things we’ve ever seen, or done, or heard, or whatever.
So the reaction to Taron Johnson’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown which propelled the Buffalo Bills to a 17-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Saturday night’s AFC divisional round playoff game was rather predictable: Greatest play in Bills postseason history.
No doubt, it was a great play, a monumental play in the context of that game because without it, perhaps the Bills don’t win and advance to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Kansas City.
Was it the greatest in Bills’ postseason history? From someone who has seen an awful lot across 30-plus years covering the Bills, and 20-some years before that of being a Buffalo-born fan and follower of the team, I can say it’s right up there.
Here’s my list of the seven greatest postseason plays, presented in chronological order (I’ll let you rank them if you want). For the purpose of this exercise, I’m picking plays only from Bills’ victories, of which there have only been 16, so no Wide Right or Music City Miracle.
And you will notice one very weird thing: Not one of the plays I selected was made by a Bills’ offensive player. There are obviously great team and individual offensive performances through the years, but no one play that really stands out to me for a list like this.
1964 AFL Championship Game
► The play: Mike Stratton’s “tackle heard ‘round the world.”
Some of the old-time fans who remain among us, the ones who were there from the moment the franchise was born in 1960 as part of the AFL, will never change their mind that Stratton’s seismic tackle against San Diego running back Keith Lincoln was the greatest play in team history.
The Bills were down 7-0 in the first quarter and the potent Chargers were on the move again when quarterback Tobin Rote threw a swing pass to the left side to Lincoln, one of the best players in the league. Stratton came charging up, timed it perfectly as the ball reached Lincoln’s hands, and drove his shoulder into the ribs of his prone victim.
Lincoln suffered broken ribs, was done for the day, and the game pivoted instantly as the Bills went on to win their first AFL title 20-7 in the muck at War Memorial Stadium.
Losing coach Sid Gillman said, “That was one of the most beautiful tackles I have ever seen in my life. That is the name of the game. They just beat us. They are great champs.”
1965 AFL Championship Game
► The play: Butch Byrd’s 74-yard punt return touchdown.
The Bills and Chargers met in a rematch the following year, this time in San Diego, and the Bills were even more dominant as they won 23-0.
Buffalo was up 7-0 in the second quarter, its defense was completely shutting down a great Chargers offense led by John Hadl, Lance Alworth, Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and things were already looking bleak for Gillman’s team.
And Byrd fielded a punt at his own 26-yard-line and weaved his way 74 yards to the end zone. Game over. The Chargers were as done in this one as they were the year before when Lincoln went down.
Team owner Ralph Wilson said afterward, “I’ve seen the Bills play some great games, but this one tops them all.” Now, to be fair, Wilson said this about a game more than a few times in his long life, a nod to the recency bias of which I speak.
1981 AFC Wildcard Game
► The play: Bill Simpson’s game-saving end zone interception.
The Bills had suffered a heartbreaking playoff loss in 1980 out in San Diego, and in 1981 they were unable to repeat as AFC East champs. Miami finished first, and the two wildcard teams came from the division, the 10-5-1 Jets and the 10-6 Bills, so the game was played at Shea Stadium.
Buffalo jumped to a 24-0 second-quarter lead and was still up 31-13 with a little more than 10 minutes to go before things got really scary in a hurry. The Jets scored two quick touchdowns to get within 31-27, and after a Bills three-and-out, New York took possession with 2:36 to go and so began a frantic, heart-pounding finish.
Jets QB Richard Todd completed two passes for 55 yards, then threw an interception that was nullified when the Bills were nailed for a defensive holding penalty. Imagine what Bills fans, like me at the time, were going through.
It came down to this: Todd tried to hit Derrick Gaffney in the end zone for the win, but Simpson read the play and intercepted the pass with two seconds to go to save the day. The year before, Simpson had been partially responsible for San Diego’s game-winning TD pass in the final two minutes, so this was a sweet moment for him.
“People remember the big plays at the end of a game and I’m just glad they’re going to be remembering this one instead of the other one,” Simpson said. “I just read Todd’s eyes and saw he was coming to Gaffney. I just stepped in front of him and the ball was right there.”
1990 AFC Championship Game
► The play: Darryl Talley’s interception touchdown return.
This game was over pretty much the moment after the emotional national anthem was sung and many in the crowd of 80,000 were waving patriotic American flags the week the Gulf War heated up. It was a memorable day to be there, and not just because of the 51-3 score. The Raiders never had a chance.
But again, in a game where Jim Kelly threw for 300 yards, Thurman Thomas rushed for 138, and the Bills finished with 502 yards and 51 points, there wasn’t a more memorable or impactful play than Talley’s interception.
Already down 14-3 in the first quarter, the Raiders were trying to get something going when Jay Schroeder dropped back to pass, was pressured by Bruce Smith, and threw an ill-advised pass over the middle toward Tim Brown. Talley was right there to pick it off and he returned it 27 yards for the touchdown that had Bills’ fans scrambling to their travel agents to book their trips to Tampa for Super Bowl 25.
“In order to be rated among the best and receive the accolades, you have to show up in a big game,” Talley said. “This was the only game in town today. The whole nation was watching. I thought about the bad years here. You’d go out in public and people would be snickering and laughing at you behind your back. I just tried to play as hard as I could during those times, and I hoped eventually that better times would come.”
1991 AFC Championship Game
► The play: Carlton Bailey’s interception touchdown return.
Before 2020, the 1991 Bills had the best offense in franchise history, the K-Gun at the height of its explosiveness. With Denver coming to Rich Stadium, all eyes were on the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Kelly and the Broncos’ John Elway, for an expected shootout.
So what happened? The game was scoreless for nearly 40 minutes and appropriately enough, it was the Bills’ defense that broke the tie.
Backed up deep in his own territory, Elway tried to throw a middle screen to running back Steve Sewell, but Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright saw it coming, dropped off his pass rush, tipped the ball into the air and Bailey came down with it and ran 11 yards for a touchdown.
The Bills would add a field goal, survive a late touchdown with Elway out of the game and backup Gary Kubiak playing, and won 10-7 to reach their second Super Bowl.
“I didn’t recognize the tip right away,” said Bailey. “I heard it, then I looked up and saw the ball. All I could think of was, ‘If I drop this ball, I’m never going to hear the end of it when I show up at the meeting Monday morning.’”
1992 AFC Wildcard Game
► The play: Nate Odomes’ overtime interception.
Picking one play from the greatest comeback in NFL history is awfully difficult because there were so many, but I’ll go with this one because Odomes’ interception early in the overtime set up Steve Christie’s game-winning field goal.
The Bills trailed 35-3 early in the third quarter before Frank Reich – playing for the injured Kelly – led the Bills to 35 straight points including four TD passes, three of those in succession to Andre Reed.
The Oilers somehow got off the deck and managed to force overtime with a last-second field goal, and when they won the coin toss to start the extra period, there was a palpable feeling in the stadium that all the great work the Bills had done might go up in smoke because the Oilers’ offense was back on track during that last field goal drive.
Instead, on the third play of the overtime, Warren Moon overthrew Haywood Jeffires, Odomes made the pick and the Bills were set up at the Houston 20.
Oilers cornerback Cris Dishman famously said, “It was the biggest choke in history. Everyone on the team, everyone in the organization, choked. We were outplayed and outcoached in the second half.”
2020 AFC Divisional Round
► The play: Taron’s Johnson’s 101-yard interception return touchdown.
The funny thing about this play is I’m up in the press box wondering out loud why Johnson came out of the end zone with the ball because I really thought he was going to be tackled inside the 10.
Johnson had other ideas. He stepped in front of tight end Mark Andrews, Lamar Jackson threw it right to him, and he had the vision and the instinct to realize there was a huge play to be made, so rather than take the touchback, he made it. The Bills did an excellent job walling off any would-be tacklers and Johnson’s field-length run will be cemented in everyone’s mind for a long time to come.
Without that play, who knows where that game ends up? The Ravens looked like they were about to tie the score, and just like that they were down 14 points. And when the Bills knocked Jackson out of the game a couple minutes later, it was over.
“Oh man, that play was huge,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes “Touchdown Taron. He does what he knows how to do, get the ball in his hands and then go find the end zone. That was a big momentum shift that we needed. That’s something that you’ve got to have at your house.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.