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INDIANAPOLIS — It was the move the Detroit Lions had to make. With a suspect defensive line devoid of pass-rushers and the team’s top option, Ezekiel Ansah, a couple weeks away from becoming a free agent, the Lions needed to find a way to keep him around.

When he’s healthy, Ansah is worth all of the $17 million-plus he’ll earn with the franchise tag this year, as evidenced by his 12 sacks for the 2017 season, including six in the last two games. When he’s not healthy — and that has been the issue since his breakout 2015 season — he’s still a good player, but not a defense-transforming one.

And the Lions, with a defensive line that needs remaking, need to have at least one dominant player in the defensive front.

Keeping Ansah for at least 2018 — and there’s always a chance a long-term deal gets worked out — gives first-year coach Matt Patricia some cover on his defensive front.

Patricia did well without a star in his defensive front in New England, but with Detroit’s unit learning a new system and a potential star player still on the roster, the Lions would have made a mistake by letting Ansah go.

Using the franchise tag is the right move because of Ansah’s injury issues. While he has played in 13 or more games every season of his career, he hasn’t appeared in all 16 since the 2015 season, when he had 14.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. The 28-year-old has also played hurt many, many times in his career, and a long-term deal would be a concern because it’s tough to predict what his health will be two or three years from now.

Ansah acknowledged last season he had played through a lot in 2017. He also felt like he could return to his old form. When pressed, he wouldn’t give specifics why he felt that way, but that’s what the Lions are hoping for in 2018.

Locking up Ansah shouldn’t change Detroit’s plan, either. The Lions still need help on the defensive line, specifically their pass rush. If a player such as Marcus Davenport or Harold Landry is available at No. 20 in April’s draft, Detroit should strongly consider taking one of those players.

Those players, like Ansah, have a chance to be stars. And right now, the Lions have Ansah and a couple of decent complementary pieces rushing the passer in Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder, who is coming off an Achilles injury.

Franchising Ansah became even more vital when evaluating other pass-rushers available. There were not many, if any, pass-rushers available on the free-agent market who have the talent level of Ansah.

Demarcus Lawrence was the most comparable player who could hit free agency, but Dallas is expected to find a way to keep its top pass-rusher. The market after Lawrence and Ansah dipped dramatically with no obvious replacements available.

So Detroit couldn’t do what it did last year, when offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Larry Warford left in free agency. The Lions had plans to replace both of them, giving big money to Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang to try to shore up the offensive line.

While those moves didn’t entirely pan out — Lang dealt with injuries most of the year and Wagner got hurt, too — they were comparable replacements, if not upgrades, to the players the Lions let go.

With Ansah, those options just weren’t there, which is why Detroit’s decision to place the franchise tag on the defensive end was the right move — and really the only sensible move — the Lions could have made.

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Buffalo Bills beat Baltimore Ravens, advance to first AFC Championship Game since 1993 season

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Sparked by cornerback Taron Johnson‘s record-tying 101-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Buffalo Bills defeated the visiting Baltimore Ravens 17-3 on Saturday night to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1993 season.

The second-seeded Bills will face the winner of Sunday’s game between the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs (CBS, 3:05 p.m. ET).

If the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs win, the Bills will travel to Arrowhead Stadium for the game next Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET.

If the Browns win, the AFC Championship Game will be played in Orchard Park, New York, next Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET.

The last time the Bills played in the AFC Championship Game was Jan. 23. 1994. They beat the visiting Chiefs in that game to earn their fourth straight trip to the Super Bowl (a game they would lose for the fourth straight year).

The Bills’ return to prominence under fourth-year head coach Sean McDermott has had Western New York buzzing, with Saturday night’s game played before approximately 6,700 fans at Bills Stadium that sounded more like 67,000 on NBC’s television broadcast. The stadium had been closed throughout the regular season due to COVID-19, but state and local officials put together a plan for the postseason that allowed attendees who registered a negative COVID-19 test to attend.

Johnson’s 101-yard interception return of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson – which tied the NFL’s record set by Green Bay’s George Teague in 1993 — helped break things open on a windy Saturday night.

Just as it appeared the Ravens were driving for a potential tying touchdown on a march that lasted more than eight minutes, Jackson didn’t seem to see Johnson cut underneath on third-and-goal from the 9-yard line.

Johnson, a third-year cornerback from Weber State, raced untouched 101 yards, with NFL Next Gen Stats clocking him with a max speed of 20.39 miles-per-hour on the play. Not even the speedy Jackson, who was clocked with a max speed of 20.66, could catch him.

On the Ravens’ next drive, Jackson was knocked out of the game after taking a hit and having his head bang against the turf. The Ravens announced he was in the concussion protocol, and the Bills closed things out against backup Tyler Huntley.

It was much tighter in the first half.

The Bills’ pass-first plan- when the teams went to halftime tied at 3 after normally reliable Ravens kicker Justin Tucker missed two field goals – was an outside-the-box approach.

Buffalo didn’t call a rushing play in the first quarter. According to Elias, the Bills are the only team in the last 60 postseasons to have no rushing plays in the first quarter of a playoff game.

Buffalo ended the half with three total rushes — one on a scramble by quarterback Josh Allen on a designed pass play, and another coming with Allen’s kneel-down on the final play.

The three rushes tied for the fewest in the first half of a playoff game over the last 70 seasons, joining the Green Bay Packers (2016 NFC Championship Game), St. Louis Rams (1999 divisional round) and Houston Oilers (1990 wild card round).

The Bills notably turned to the run on their opening drive of the second half, which produced the game’s first touchdown — a 4-yard catch-and-run by receiver Stefon Diggs, who became the first Bills player with a receiving touchdown in consecutive playoff games since Pro Football Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas (1995-96).

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Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson suffers concussion in loss to Buffalo Bills

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was ruled out for the fourth quarter after suffering a concussion in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at the Buffalo Bills.

The Ravens went on to lose 17-3.

On the final play of the third quarter, Jackson’s head snapped back and hit the turf in the end zone of Bills Stadium after throwing the ball away and taking a hit from Bills defensive end Trent Murphy. Jackson immediately grabbed his helmet with both hands after hitting the ground. He then threw his hands up in frustration as he headed to the locker room with a trainer.

Jackson was flagged for intentional grounding on the play.

Undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley replaced him with the Ravens trailing 17-3. The Ravens’ other quarterbacks — Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley — are on injured reserve.

Jackson’s injury came two plays after he threw just the second pick-six of his career. After driving down to the Buffalo 9-yard line, Jackson stared down tight end Mark Andrews and was picked off in the red zone for the first time in his career.

Taron Johnson outran Jackson and returned the interception 101 yards for the score. Instead of potentially tying the game, the Ravens fell behind by two touchdowns.

Jackson finished 14-of-24 for 162 yards passing and managed just 34 yards rushing on nine carries. It was his third-fewest rushing yards since taking over as Baltimore’s starter in the middle of the 2018 season.

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Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald hampered, emotional in loss to Green Bay Packers

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Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald stood on the sideline at Lambeau Field and was unable to hold back tears as the clock wound down to a 32-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers in a divisional-round playoff.

Rams coach Sean McVay and defensive line coach Eric Henderson tried to console Donald, who played Saturday only a week removed from suffering a significant rib injury in a wild-card playoff win.

“I love Aaron Donald, it means a lot to him,” McVay said after the game, “and it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t at full strength today.”

Before Saturday’s game, Donald said he felt good, strong, and would be ready to play. But the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was clearly limited against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Wearing protective padding on his ribs, Donald played only 55% of the snaps, down from his season average of 85%, though McVay said he was not on a snap count.

“Aaron is able to sub himself,” McVay said. “The plan going in was seeing how he feels, he’s kind of always got the ability to tell us how he’s feeling.”

Donald was doubled-teamed on 15 of his 21 pass rushes and failed to record a pass rush win — beating a block within 2.5 seconds — for only the second time since 2017, according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. He recorded one pressure against Rodgers, however the Packers’ quarterback completed a 33-yard pass to tight end Robert Tonyan on the play.

Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers expressed disappointment for Donald after the game.

“Hard for a guy like that to work as hard as he does to put in everything that he does,” Brockers said, later adding, “[I] just got to talk to him, let him know, ‘Man, that’s not on you, that’s not on you — there’s no reason you have to feel that way, [that] you feel like you failed or anything like that. You gave us everything you had and you’re the reason why we’re here.'”

Donald finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the NFL with 13.5 sacks and added two more in the 30-20 wild-card win over the Seattle Seahawks.

The Rams’ defense finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in efficiency, yards allowed per game (281.9) and points allowed per game (18.5).

However, Rodgers and the Packers piled up 484 total yards of offense and kept the Rams’ defense on the field, dominating the time of possession, 36:12 to 23:48.

Prior to Saturday, the Rams had not let an opponent this season score on its first three drives, but the Packers scored on five straight to open the game, including a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that was prolonged when Donald — in apparent frustration — picked up a penalty for unnecessary roughness when he grabbed offensive lineman Elgton Jenkin’s facemask.

Donald was not made available to reporters after the game.

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