ENGLEWOOD, Co.—Brock the Bronco is all the rage in the Rockies. You can’t climb into a cab (or Uber) in Denver without being immediately engaged in conversation about the Broncos’ newest quarterbacking star, Brock Osweiler.
In Denver’s dramatic 30–24 overtime upset of New England in the snow Sunday night at Sports Authority Field, the impressively poised Osweiler threw for 270 yards and led a five-play, 83-yard go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes, then capped his big night by calling the correct run audible on C.J. Anderson’s game-winning 48-yard touchdown burst in overtime.
And sixth-year Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders not only had a front-row view of Osweiler’s smashing home starting debut, but his fingerprints were all over the Broncos’ win, with a team-high six receptions for 113 yards (18.8 average), including a crucial 39-yard reception on the go-ahead scoring drive late in regulation. No matter if it’s Peyton Manning or Osweiler at quarterback, Sanders has been the Broncos’ big-play target this season, leading the team in both receiving touchdowns (four) and yards-per-reception (14.5), while ranking second on the team in both catches (52) and yards (752).
The Broncos have won both of Osweiler’s starts since Manning left the lineup due to a partially torn plantar fascia in his left heel, and at 9–2 are in position to vie with the Patriots (10–1) and Bengals (9–2) for one of the AFC’s two first-round playoff byes. Hours after Denver ended New England’s bid for a second perfect regular season in nine years, I spoke with the always entertaining Sanders at the Broncos’ team complex, touching on all things Brock-mania, the team’s transition from the Manning era, Denver’s playoff chances going forward and his big night in the Broncos’ signature win of the season:
Don Banks: Is it an overlooked part of the Brock Osweiler story that he benefited greatly from waiting and watching for so long behind Peyton Manning? That he didn’t have to be rushed in there and play right away, but was deep into his fourth season before he was asked to lead this team?
Emmanuel Sanders: He definitely benefited from watching. It’s that whole Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre story. And obviously Brock’s still got a long way to reach Aaron Rodgers's accolades, but still it’s the same theme. Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre and waited and waited and waited, and sometimes being patient, you learn a lot.
You get acclimated with the NFL lifestyle. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the NFL lifestyle is totally different from college. You’re a college kid, and now you’re getting a lot of money and you’ve got to learn how to balance off the field and on the field. So when you get opportunities to sit back and not have to play right away, you get to figure out how to have your life balanced.
Obviously him being behind Peyton has also helped—just learning how Peyton goes about his business and seeing a guy who handles himself in a first-class manner and knows what it takes to win ballgames. To have an opportunity to be groomed by him is big, and you’ve obviously seen the benefit on the field already.
DB: We love overnight sensations in the NFL, but this one has been four years in the making, hasn’t it? Even though some think it’s a two-week story. We’re missing that part of it, aren’t we?
ES: The thing is, what’d Brock play, two years at Arizona State? [Actually parts of three.] So nobody really knew about him, and we took him in the second round (57th overall in 2012). So [Denver GM/executive vice president John] Elway and those guys knew his potential. He’s definitely prepared for this shot and it has shown out there on the field.
DB: What did Sunday night’s comeback win over the then-undefeated Patriots tell you about this team that maybe you didn’t know before?
ES: One thing about [Sunday] night was we came back to win, but we killed ourselves early in that ballgame. I think it just gives us confidence that hey, once we really get to clicking, we can be a dangerous. You look at that game against the Patriots and we didn’t lead until late in the fourth quarter, because we just kept killing ourselves. I feel like if we put together a full game, I don’t think there’s anyone in the NFL that can stop us.
DB: You had an electrifying game Sunday night. The crowd really came alive when you had the ball in your hands. With the snow, the prime time setting, the undefeated Patriots as the opponent, was that the kind of stage you crave?
ES: I just pride myself on, as Deion (Sanders) used to always say, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And that leads to big-time winning. And I pride myself on that. I live for that. I live for those moments.
DB: Did you catch Brock in the post-game on NBC, when he said I’m not 2–0, this team is 2–0 (when he starts)? That’s a pretty veteran thought for a guy who just knocked off Tom Brady.
ES: He’s prepared. He’s so prepared. And one thing about it it is, it’s not as if he’s acting like someone he isn’t. That’s who Brock is. And that’s why he gets all the respect in the locker room.
DB: How long did it take you to see that ‘it’ factor a quarterback needs?
ES: Last year was my first year here, but Brock has always been waiting on his opportunity and I think everybody started to take notice this preseason when when he got his opportunity. Peyton didn’t play the majority of the preseason games, and Brock came on and was just balling in every single preseason game he played in. We knew that he was ready from that point on.
DB: You said Sunday night in the post-game that you think Denver has found its long-term guy at quarterback. But this is a very delicate time of transition for this team, going from a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback like Manning to the future and current starter in Osweiler. How do you think everyone involved has handled the situation so far?
ES: I think everybody has handled it well, because at the end of the day we’ve got one goal and one goal only, and it doesn’t matter who gets the glory or who’s in there (at quarterback). I think this organization, it’s No. 1 goal is to hoist that Lombardi trophy. And as long as we keep our eyes on that, everybody keeps their ego at the door, I think it’ll be good, and I think everybody has done that.
DB: Are there any subtle stylistic differences between Peyton and Brock in how they lead this team, or is it night and day in how they approach things? Is it a case of not wanting to disappoint Peyton or let him down, because he’s such a well-known perfectionist and a long-time veteran, while Brock is said to be more like everyone’s good friend?
ES: That’s the outside looking in perspective. But to me, Peyton is my brother. Both of them are my brothers, so I don’t see any differences. Brock is a young quarterback, and Peyton has been in the National Football League a long time and he’s seen a lot of football. From the outside looking in, people say Peyton Manning and their eyes get big. But in this locker room he’s one of the guys. He talks with me, texts with me all the time, so I don’t get that vibe (being intimidated). Just like Brock texts me.
DB: Denver’s formula of running game, strong defense and quality quarterbacking has come together to produce two close wins the past two weeks. That has been the goal all along this season, but is it a case of now it’s finally happening?
ES: That’s a championship formula and a championship mentality. And we’ve got to keep it going. It feels good to call a run play and look back and see C.J. Anderson or Ronnie Hillman springing it for a 15 or 20-yard gain. When you run the football and you get a big-time gain, it’s like a confidence booster on offense. It feels good. (Sunday) night, even in the first quarter, we were running the football well.
DB: You’ve still got some very tough games, at Pittsburgh in Week 15, then home against Cincinnati in Week 16. But Sunday night’s win put Denver back in the race for a first-round bye and playing at home in the divisional round. How important is that playoff positioning for this team?
ES: It’s extremely important. That’s what we’re chasing right now. Obviously you’re chasing a Lombardi, but we want the easiest road possible to get there. We don’t want to make it hard on ourselves. We’ve got a tough schedule still to get through, but we’ve just got to focus on right now, and that’s (at) San Diego this week.
DB: Tell me one thing about Brock that I couldn’t possibly know.
ES: Brock, he’s got a big personality. He’s one of the good guys. He’s not going to kill nothing, and he’s not going to let anything die. He’s one of the good guys.
DB: If the window is closing for Manning here in Denver at the end of this year, do you know yet whether he still wants to play somewhere else in 2016?
ES: I don’t know anything. I’m not focused on Peyton. I know the media wants to depict Peyton and Brock, but I’m not even going to go there and or give my opinion on whatever I think. That’s nothing that concerns this team. That is an element that doesn’t matter.
DB: If it is over for him here, and Manning doesn't return to the lineup this year, do you expect him and the team to handle this transition smoothly, and with class?
ES: Of course. Of course.