Isaiah McKenzie had ridden off the field on the back of a cart, a scene typically followed by an announcement the player won’t return to the game.
That announcement never came, because McKenzie essentially refused to leave the Buffalo Bills’ 14-13 victory against the Detroit Lions Sunday.
You could say his grit belied the circumstances, with the Bills’ playoffs hopes having evaporated a week ago and the Lions virtually in the same place. The Bills had a growing injury list, so they needed as many bodies as possible to pick up the slack. As a receiver, returner and part-time gadget runner, McKenzie knew he would likely be missed.
After entering the locker room at New Era Field midway through the third quarter, he asked the athletic trainer if he could return. “We’ll see,” the trainer said. McKenzie had cramping in both calves, which he knew could be remedied with an IV injection, but then there was the matter of his twisted ankle. “Just tape it up,” he said. “I’m going to go back out there, because I can’t leave this game.”
Sure enough, McKenzie returned to action early in the fourth quarter, showing the sort of heart that fullback Patrick DiMarco displayed by briefly taking over at running back – where LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory were already missing before the game with injuries and Marcus Murphy also became a casualty with an injured arm late in the second quarter – and other players demonstrated left and right.
“The DNA that Coach (Sean McDermott) has brought around here is just a bunch of tough jokers,” DiMarco said. “And that’s kind of what this locker room is full of. We’re tough, we’re going to fight our tails off, and that’s what we did. A bump and a bruise here aren't going to hold us down.”
Even when it would be so easy to allow them to do so.
The Bills are 5-9, with two games left. They could easily be going through the motions. In fact, some would argue they’d be better off losing out and getting the highest draft pick possible.
Yet, that isn’t how the Bills go about their business. That’s why DiMarco, on his lone carry, picked up nine yards. It’s why Keith Ford, a rookie free agent, had 46 yards to lead the Bills in rushing despite briefly leaving the game with an injury and then returning, while Murphy chipped in 35 before his injury. McKenzie and receiver Ray-Ray McCloud also had carries.
“This is a special team,” offensive tackle Dion Dawkins said. “We’re not playing for playoffs anymore, we’re playing for each other. And games like this is just showing character for each person that's on that field. Are you going to give that extra leg for the man next to you or are you just going to say, ‘Well, forget it. The season’s over, let’s just get it over with?’ "
The difference in the outcome was a botched extra-point attempt by the Lions after their first touchdown. Veteran Lions kicker Matt Prater also was wide right on a 48-yard field-goal attempt.
Although Josh Allen did produce the Bills’ first touchdown on a 3-yard run and put the game away with a 2-yard keeper on fourth-and-1 with just less than two minutes left, his legs weren’t the focal point of this game. After generating more than 300 yards on the ground in the previous three games, Allen had only 16 yards rushing on nine carries.
No, the rookie quarterback did his best work with his arm, completing 13 of 26 throws for 204 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 89.3. He often worked from five-receiver formations as the Bills both tried to minimize their dependence on an injury-depleted backfield while also expanding Allen’s exposure to more of the playbook.
Allen’s efforts helped set a tone to which his teammates responded.
“Josh is a winner,” Dawkins said. “The things he did are statements that Josh is an all-around player. And even though in those past games, he's been running, but this also shows that Josh is a passer, which he was when he got drafted. This is just showing the world that Josh is a complete quarterback.”
Two of the Bills’ bigger plays were pass-interference penalties they drew. One was for 43 yards on Mike Ford, while covering Robert Foster. That set up Allen’s scoring run. The other, for 23 yards on Darius Slay, helped set up Allen’s 42-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Foster for the winning points.
Allen’s counterpart, Matthew Stafford, threw for 206 yards and a score. But the Bills’ defense, which entered the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL, held one of the league’s worst offenses off the scoreboard in the second half. Safety Jordan Poyer had one of his better performances of the season in preventing the Lions from moving in range for a potential winning field goal.
"It's satisfying," said Poyer, who was credited with a game-high 11 tackles, including one for a loss. "It was a huge topic for us this week: We have to find a way to win. It says a lot about this team."
As sloppy as the game often was, the performance also served as an example to some of the younger players on the roster of the type of effort necessary in the late stages of a season.
“Any December football in the fourth quarter, you find a way to win, that’s huge,” safety Micah Hyde said. “You learn for the future. Hopefully, next year, we’re in the same situation with a way better record and we’re able to play in December and have meaningful games and come up with a victory just like that.
“This team is made up of a bunch of high-character guys that want to win. It doesn’t matter if you’re a backup, whatever, go out there, make some plays. And I think everybody understands that.”