ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Baltimore Ravens clinched a playoff berth Sunday, and it wasn't because quarterback Lamar Jackson drove the team into game-winning field-goal range or put up 40 points in a blowout.
The Ravens became the second team in the NFL to earn a postseason spot because of a defense that went from being Jackson's complementary piece to being clutch performers in a 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Baltimore cornerback Marcus Peters broke up a fourth-down pass at the Ravens' 1-yard line with 1 minute, 3 seconds remaining, wrapping up a franchise-best ninth straight win. But, unlike most of the season, the defense got to wear the cape.
"We want to be the heroes sometimes," linebacker Matthew Judon said. "It’s usually Lamar and the offensive line are the heroes of the game and they milk the clock. [On Sunday], we were called upon. We focus on our situation even though they drove the ball down the field. We knew [to] bend but never break."
Jackson became the front-runner for NFL Most Valuable Player when he led the Ravens to score 30 or more points against the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams. In a 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Jackson marched Baltimore into position for the winning field goal while running out the final 6 minutes, 28 seconds of the game.
On Sunday, Jackson got the ball with seven minutes left in Buffalo and with a 24-17 lead. Baltimore went three-and-out, putting all of the pressure to save the game squarely on the defense.
With the help of two personal fouls and a defensive pass interference penalty, the Bills were within 16 yards of tying the game or possibly going ahead. But, on fourth-and-8, Peters got his hand on a pass that would've gone for a touchdown to wide receiver John Brown.
"That's what Marcus is. He's a closer," safety Earl Thomas said. "He can do that. At any given time, he can make a game-changing turnover and take it back 99 at any given time. So we have full trust in all our DBs, and especially Marcus."
The impact of the defense went beyond one play and one final drive. The Ravens kept the Bills out of the end zone for three quarters. Baltimore sacked Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen six times and held the Bills to 209 yards, its second-fewest allowed this season.
Matthew Judon's forced fumble in the first half led to a touchdown. When Jackson threw his first interception since Oct. 6, the defense forced the Bills to punt.
"Our defense was the key to victory," Jackson said.
The transformation of the Ravens' defense has been staggering. In free agency, the NFL's top-ranked defense lost Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Za'Darius Smith. In Weeks 3 and 4 this season, the Ravens gave up 500 yards in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history.
Baltimore then reloaded throughout the regular season without giving up much to improve. The Ravens added linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort and defensive lineman Jihad Ward in free agency. They had young players like safety Chuck Clark and linebacker Jaylon Ferguson step up for injured veterans (Tony Jefferson and Pernell McPhee). And they traded a fifth-round pick and backup linebacker Kenny Young to the Rams for Peters.
Since Week 5, Baltimore has allowed the third-fewest yards in the NFL (278.7) and the second-fewest points (15.1). While the spotlight remains on Jackson, the Ravens know others can win games for them.
"I feel like a couple weeks ago -- more than a couple of weeks ago -- we were looking porous as a defense," Judon said. "We were allowing everything to happen to us. We came in as a defense and came together. We added some pieces that we needed. We put it into motion, and it’s working for us."