It just takes one play.
Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when the offense cannot get going, the first downs are hard to come by and the points even harder, all it takes is one snap.
In the span of a few seconds, the complexion of an NFL game can change. A scoreless tie can give way to a go-ahead score, and a seemingly insurmountable deficit can vanish with one momentum-changing play.
There's a certain sense of pride that comes with being the player that makes that play. And there's a certain sense of responsibility, too.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton carries both with him.
"I feel that pressure a lot," Sutton tells the media in early October. "All week we hear that whatever the strength of that [team] is, the other side of the ball kind of gets challenged that week. If they have a really good defensive line, then the offensive line gets challenged. [If they have] a really good secondary, then the receivers get challenged. We look at it as an opportunity when we get challenged. We want to go out and make plays. That's kind of our M.O.
"… I use the term 'being the spoon.' When you make some chocolate milk, you have regular milk and you put the chocolate in there. You have to have the spoon and stir it up. I always use that term of being the spoon. I look at myself as a guy who wants to go out there and be the spoon and go out there and make a big play to get the offense going and get some juice going. I know the rest of my guys in my room and the rest of the offensive guys all look at that.
"If there's a lull, everybody's like, 'Let's get that one play to get us going and get the momentum rolling so that we can have the success that we want."
In the Broncos' Week 2 win over Jacksonville, Sutton made that play.
Denver's offense struggled early in that game, punting on two of its first three possessions, and the team entered the final minutes of the first half trailing 7-3. Late in the first half, Sutton stirred things up. He caught a pass on a critical third-and-6 for a 16-yard gain that pushed the Broncos near midfield, and two plays later, he hauled in an over-the-shoulder pass for a 33-yard gain. Denver scored three plays later to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
After halftime, Sutton just kept rolling. On the second play of the second half, Sutton caught a 55-yard pass from Teddy Bridgewater that set Denver up for another touchdown pass. It was the third time Bridgewater looked for Sutton deep down the field that afternoon, and the long-awaited connection helped Denver effectively ice the game.
"I definitely think that the right big play — you know, there's always big plays throughout the game — I think the right big play gives the offense or the defense that confidence of, like, 'Hey, we can really go do this,'" Sutton says. "I do think that that happens. … The opportunities come, and it's upon us to maximize them. Whether it's five opportunities in a game or 10 opportunities in a game, we've got to maximize each one that comes to us."
In that Week 2 win, Sutton gave the Broncos a career-high nine catches for 159 yards — and he also gave them a spark. After the game, Head Coach Vic Fangio's message was concise.
Sutton's ability to make a game-changing play isn't always so easy; He's retrained by the nature of his position.
For Sutton to shift his team's fortunes on the field, Bridgewater must look his way and deliver the football.
You'd think that, at least.
Sutton, though, knows his ability to impact to "be the spoon" extends to the sideline.
"Our position definitely relies on a lot of people doing their job for us to be able to get the ball," Sutton says. "If the ball isn't coming our way, I feel like the other ways of being the spark is you know, I love being able to walk down the sidelines and just telling them, 'Hey, stay into it.' If the defense is on the field and the opposing offense is having a nice little drive, I try to keep guys in it. Just like, 'Hey, you know, when we get when we get a chance, we've got to make sure that we take advantage of it and just maximize it.' Like, with when the defense gets a big stop, trying to be in the offense's ear like, 'Hey, they just went and worked their butts off to get us a stop. Let's go put some points on the board.'
"It's nice to be able to go make a play, but I also feel like there are times where shelling out encouraging words is something that could help guys be like, 'Hey, yeah. We are still in this, we do have everything you need to go be successful. It's all upon us.'"
Sutton says he's viewed that as his role since his rookie season in 2018, back when Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were the veterans in the wide receiving corps. Early in that season, Sutton didn't see many chances; He didn't catch more than three passes until Week 13, a few weeks after Thomas had been traded to the Texans. Sanders' injury ahead of Week 14 provided another opportunity for Sutton to grow in his leadership role, and he fully assumed the role of the No. 1 receiver after Sanders was traded the following fall.
"Even when I was a rookie and we had all these other guys, all [that] other talent around us, I looked at it as like, 'Hey, you know, of my four or five targets I get in the game, those plays can be big spark plays,'" Sutton says. "Those plays can be plays that bring juice. … Even being a young guy, I still like being able to walk in and being a guy that, you know, encourages and just tries to keep guys' heads in the game when things might not be going the way we want them to be going, but just letting guys know that the tide can turn at any moment."
Whether on the field or on the sideline, Sutton is dedicated to being a part of that process.
Check out photos from Courtland Sutton's seven-catch, 120-yard performance on his birthday against the Steelers.
The next step in Sutton's return from an ACL injury that cost him nearly all of 2020 seems quite clear.
Be the spoon — and be it often.
Following his Week 2 performance, Sutton caught five passes for 37 yards against the Jets and three passes for 47 yards against the Ravens. He bounced back with seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh, and he's on track for his second 1,000-yard season. With Denver at 5-5 and looking for more offensive consistency, the Broncos undoubtedly needed Sutton's best each week.
"I feel like consistency in that week in and week out is something that will ultimately get all of us into that conversation of, 'Hey, we have to watch and respect the Broncos,'" Sutton says. "That's the biggest thing. It's nice to be able to hear guys talk about you in a rank of receivers, but my biggest thing is wanting guys and wanting the league and everyone on the outside to respect the Broncos as a whole. I feel like there are people around the league that don't respect us as a whole, and that's the thing that I want us to be able to get back to. I want guys to see the Broncos on the schedule say, 'Damn, we got them boys this week.' Like, 'Yeah. Y'all got us this week.' Really, to feel that urgency of, 'We've got to make sure we come with our A-game or we're gonna get punched in the mouth.'"
He showed that consistent ability in 2019, when he recorded at least 60 receiving yards in eight of his first 10 games. Should Sutton continue to be productive, it can only help the Broncos' chances of racking up wins. With enough game-changing catches and enough victories, Sutton could find himself in the postseason for the first time in his career. That remains a somewhat distant goal — one worth considering further in several weeks — but it could give Sutton a yet-to-be-earned opportunity.
To be the spark when it matters most.
If a third-down catch against Jacksonville in September is rewarding, one can only imagine how a deep grab in a playoff game would feel.