Lewai Mitchell arrived at his first Buffalo Bills postgame interview session with his long blond mane flowing down the back of a gray hoodie bearing the insignia of his father's alma mater, South Florida. In one hand he carried a bottle of Gatorade, in the other a stuffed Curious George doll.
As his dad, Kawika, began to speak, 5-year-old Lewai attempted to engage Chris Jenkins, the Bills' director of media relations, in an enthusiastic side conversation. This was not good timing. Jenkins put a finger to his own lips, signaling Lewai that it was his dad's turn to do the talking. Lewai obeyed, but not before making sure everyone in his entourage understood the rules. He looked at his friend and whispered, "Be quiet Curious George."
That's the kind of afternoon it was for the Mitchell clan, a couple of inauspicious starts rendered moot by dynamite recoveries.
The power outage that struck The Ralph on Sunday seemed to have a personal effect on Mitchell, the free agent linebacker signed from the New York Giants after last season. He tripped over his feet while backpedaling on San Diego's second play from scrimmage. You think that's not embarrassing? The tumble was the lowlight of what he would call "probably one of the worst quarters of my life."
"Pretty unathletic, [but] I don't mind pointing it out," Mitchell said. "It was just one of those times. The time was messed up, the power was going out and I was dead, my emotions were leaving me. It was just one of those rough times. But again, I bounced back and I think that's just because my teammates held me together. And from experience."
With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, with the San Diego Chargers driving toward a possible go-ahead touchdown, Mitchell emerged as the afternoon's game-changing defensive force. He tipped away a Philip Rivers pass on a first-down play from the Chargers' 42. When San Diego kept marching, he forced an incompletion by hurrying Rivers off a blitz. When the unrelenting Chargers moved ever closer to the potential go-ahead points, Mitchell drew on team study of San Diego's tendencies to pick off a Rivers pass a yard deep in the end zone on first-and-goal from the Buffalo 9. His 32-yard return led to a field goal that cemented Buffalo's 23-14 victory, a win that validated the Bills as a serious playoff contender, and perhaps something more.
"It was a play we worked on in practice," Mitchell said. "No. 86 [Brandon Manumaleuna], the tight end, ran a crossing route and I knew to look to No. 85 [Antonio Gates]. . . . That's just the play that we worked on. They didn't run it all game and we finally got it and I was supposed to make a play on it so I did."
"People make football too hard," observed safety Donte Whitner. "Sometimes they overcomplicate the game. If you study, know what you're doing, the game is easy. You have to go out and work every day but the game will be easy. And that's what we're showing. We're showing that we can make plays when they count. That was a big possession for them if they go in and score. We get the interception, go down and get three and then get another turnover and just seal the game."
Mitchell came within a fumble recovery of scoring in every category of the defensive stat sheet. He accounted for four solo tackles, three assists, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit, the huge interception, two passes defensed and a forced fumble on San Diego's final possession. He's the first Bill since Angelo Crowell two seasons ago to produce a sack and an interception in the same game.
That makes twice in his last four games at The Ralph that Mitchell exerted tremendous influence over the outcome. Remember last December, when he intercepted a Trent Edwards throw and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown, igniting a momentum shift the Giants would ride all the way to a Super Bowl championship?
"He's a total professional," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "He goes about it the right way. . . . He comes out to practice every day busting his tail. Then he shows on Sunday. Guys look up to him and guys look to him to make plays like that and so far, so good."