ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – As the teams lined up along the line of scrimmage for the Bills' final, fateful play on Sunday, a quartet of Panthers defensive backs matched up in man-to-man coverage.
Only one of the four was on the field for the Bills' first snap of the game.
"I don't think we had one healthy guy back there," said safety Mike Mitchell, one of the few still standing after Buffalo pulled out a 24-23 victory with a last-second touchdown pass. "It was extremely tough, but we had to find a way to finish that game."
Mitchell wasn't 100 percent with a hamstring injury and didn't start the game, but he was among the healthiest at game's end. Starting safeties Charles Godfrey and Quintin Mikell needed crutches after the game, with Godfrey suffering an Achilles injury that head coach Ron Rivera feared serious and Mikell leaving with an ankle injury that will be further evaluated.
Before they went down, starting cornerback Josh Thomas was lost for the game to a concussion. The Panthers entered the game without cornerbacks James Dockery (thumb) and Melvin White (healthy inactive).
"It is disruptive whenever you lose two starters," Rivera said. "It's hard, but the bottom line is that other guys had opportunities to make plays, and we didn't make the plays."
All five "healthy" defensive backs were on the field for the game-winning score with two seconds remaining. Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn lined up against receivers closest to the offensive line. Hobbled cornerback D.J. Moore and Josh Norman – who had left the game at one point after taking a shot to the thigh - lined up against the receivers split out widest to the left. Colin Jones lined up just off the line of scrimmage and blitzed.
Jones nor anyone else could get reach quarterback E.J. Manuel before a pick play orchestrated by receivers Stevie Johnson and Chris Hogan against Moore and Norman left Johnson wide-open for the winning score.
Before the snap, Moore appeared to try to get Norman's attention in the den of noise to switch if the Bills tried to pick one of them off, but Norman didn't get the message.
"Communication with people coming in and out is tough," Norman said. "I'm sure he did call for it, but I was just so locked into my man and not letting him get inside.
"Ideally, we would switch in that situation. But if you don't get the call, you just try to stay with your man."
Norman got lots of playing time after Thomas suffered his concussion early in the second quarter. The next man down was Godfrey early in the third quarter, when he broke up a pass in the end zone to help force the Bills to settle for a field goal.
"I made a play on the ball and got up. I took a couple of steps, and it didn't feel too good," Godfrey said. "I went down, and they came and checked it out, carted me off and took X-rays. They're going to read those in more detail and will let me know from there.
"You're always concerned, but it's out of my hands. What's done is done now. All I can do now is do whatever I can to get back as quick as possible while making sure I'm healed all the way."
Mikell made an even bigger play when he got injured, limping off the field after stripping Manuel late in the third quarter to set up the Panthers for a field goal that gave them the lead back at 17-14.
That thrust Jones, typically limited to special teams, into action. He came up with what briefly looked to be a game-clinching interception on the Bills' final drive, only to have a pass interference call on linebacker Luke Kuechly wipe it out.
The Panthers' defensive backs made plays Sunday to be sure but couldn't come up with the play.
"It's about finishing the game," Munnerlyn said. "They had to go 80 yards and get a touchdown to win with zero timeouts. Defensively, we can not let that happen.
"A lot of guys got hurt at the safety position and at the cornerback position, but that's no excuse. You just have to go out there, grind it out and play football."