DENVER – The plan crashed into Aqib Talib’s mind as soon as he wrestled the ball away from Dez Bryant. He was 3 yards deep in the north end zone at Mile High, but yearned to arrive in the far-away south end zone, where glory and joy and, best of all, badly needed nourishment beckoned.
“I wanted to run all the way up in the stands, man, and get me a hot dog,” Talib said. “That was my initial plan.”
The south end zone called to him, from 103 yards away, but he required help to arrive there. He required fellow defenders who cared deeply, even though the Cowboys had been vanquished and humiliated, even though the game had long been decided, even though the temptation was overwhelming to rest after a superlative afternoon of work.
Talib arrived after a long journey to the south end zone. It was his 10th career touchdown interception return, placing him fourth on the NFL’s all-time list.
But his sprint to the score was about more than a mere statistic. It was a sonic boom of a statement to the rest of the NFL.
We’ll allow linebacker Brandon Marshall to make the official announcement.
“We’re the best defense in the NFL,” Marshall said. “I don’t know how many times we have to say it: We’re the best defense in the NFL. … There’s no defense in the NFL like us. Our defense is spectacular.”
Listen to him.
Listen to him because the Broncos defense is loaded with elite talent. But, mostly, listen to him because the Broncos compete with raging intensity, no matter the situation.
When Talib seized the pass, only 72 seconds remained in the game. A weary Marshall could have watched Talib’s journey. Hey, that’s what most of the lazy Cowboys did.
“I’m not selfish,” Marshall said. “I know who it is. I know how many pick sixes he has, and I want him to get another one, right?”
As Talib took off, Marshall immediately placed his eyes on Dak Prescott, the Cowboys quarterback and, on this play, the last line of defense. The quest for yet another Talib TD looked promising until Cowboy receiver Cole Beasley swooped into the picture, seemingly out of nowhere.
“I didn’t see Beasley at first,” Talib said. “I was just hoping that he wasn’t any real good tackler.”
Talib’s hope was rewarded. He nonchalantly shrugged off Beasley’s timid tackle and turned his eyes toward Prescott.
Meanwhile, Marshall was sprinting to make a badly needed block. If Marshall could get to Prescott, then Talib would arrive in the end zone.
“I got to go,” Marshall told his weary body. “I got to escort him.”
Marshall ran, just ahead of Talib, toward Prescott. The Cowboys quarterback enjoyed a sensational rookie season a year ago, turning the Cowboys toward their former might and becoming the Darling of Dallas.
He was no match for the challenge ahead of him. Near the east sideline, Marshall collided hard into Prescott, who backed up. Marshall hit him again, and it was over. Talib cut toward open spaces.
He scored, touched only by Beasley, but Talib realized the role his caring teammates played in what was much more than a solo show.
“They care about me, man,” Talib said. “They care about me getting that record. I care about those guys, man. We’re brothers. We’re a team. I love those guys.”
Talib had hoped to leap into the stands and run to a concession stand and order a hot dog. You think he’s kidding? Then you don’t know Talib. Don’t be surprised if you see him gleefully devouring a dog after his next pick six.
“It was too long,” Talib said of his hot dog dreams. “By the time I got there, I was too tired to do anything, man.”
Last season, the Broncos missed the playoffs only a few months after winning everything and electrifying a region. They missed the playoffs because of an inconsistent, faulty offense.
But they missed the playoff primarily because their defense tumbled from great to very good.
A long, wild run has a way of clarifying a situation.
“We’re back,” said Marshall, the man who ran 80 yards to make a block with his team already up 18 points.
“We’re back,” he said again, this time with feeling.
I believe him.