Josh Norman felt like a kid missing out on a pizza party. On Sunday, he forced his way in.
The veteran cornerback spent the first three weeks of the season sidelined with a hamstring injury. While his Buffalo Bills teammates won a thriller against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, Norman was up in the press box tweeting words of encouragement.
"It was one of those things, they were having a pizza party and I was like, 'Well shoot, I'm knocking on the door, ya'll not going to let me in?'" Norman quipped. "So, I had to kick it down."
Norman made his grand entrance during Buffalo's 30-23 victory in Las Vegas on Sunday, a performance punctuated by a game-changing forced fumble that energized the Bills defense and stifled the Raiders' comeback attempt.
Trailing 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Las Vegas had crossed into Buffalo territory and was threatening to tie the score when quarterback Derek Carr sent a pass to tight end Darren Waller in the flat. Norman saw his window of opportunity as Waller attempted to shrug off a Jordan Poyer tackle.
Norman punched the ball loose, then crawled to gain possession before it tumbled out of bounds. The play was a do-over from earlier in the contest, when Norman saw a similar opportunity go unfulfilled.
"I tried to get him the first time and he just shrugged me off like a big 6-6 guy would do if you don't wrap up," Norman said. "And I was actually going for the ball at the end, but his momentum pushed him forward and I just slipped off of him. I was just shaking my head, kind of was pissed off about it.
"… I bide my time and I was able to see him in the flat again and somebody was there to tackle him. I know he always likes to get extra yardage, so when I came in, I just went for it with my left hand and just struck it."
Teammates who watched Norman work tirelessly to return from injury relished in the moment.
"He's a fighter, man," wide receiver Andre Roberts said. "He's been working hard to get back on the field. We see him every single day in the training room, on the field at practice, just going hard, just getting ready to go. He showed why he's a true veteran and he was ready today. He made some plays out there and we needed it most when he got that fumble."
Devin Singletary flashed a big grin when recounting the moment afterward.
"The whole sideline just erupted," he said. "Everybody was crunk."
It was a vindicating moment for Norman, who joined the Bills during the offseason after being released by Washington. His familiarity with general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott from their days in Carolina made it a natural fit.
"I just felt like this was a great spot and a great opportunity outside all the other ones that probably would've came up," he said. "… I already know what this is. I know what this looks like. I know the mindset of this team. That's what I'm on. The same thing."
Norman embraced his new surroundings, quickly establishing himself as an energetic leader on the Bills defense. Off the field, he was one of four players who helped announce a series of social justice initiatives at a press conference with Mayor Byron W. Brown last month.
The cornerback remained mentally engaged even after his training camp came to an early end, reveling in his teammates' success while preparing for his eventual return. He prayed that he would make the most of his opportunity when it arrived.
Any chance of easing into his debut went out the window when Levi Wallace left the game with a first-quarter injury, thrusting Norman into an every-down role. He worked his way through an admittedly rusty start as the Bills fended off the persistent Raiders, who had marched to the Bills' 36-yard-line by the time Norman punched the ball from Waller's arms.
"Coach was actually saying, 'Somebody make a play, somebody make a play. Make a play,'" Norman said. "I was like, 'I'll make a play.' I had my old T.O. mindset."
The play's origins can be traced to 2015, when All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman joined Norman on the Panthers. Tillman had made a living off his trademark "Peanut Punch," prompting Norman to add the move to his own repertoire.
Five years later, it allowed the undefeated Bills to keep their party going one week longer.
"If I can't get it in the air, I'm going to get it on the ground," Norman said. "One of the two. You're not going to be able to avoid me."