NEW ORLEANS –There aren't many NFL teams within shouting distance of Huntsville, Alabama.
The Titans and Falcons sit closest to Darian Stewart's hometown, but both are more than 100 miles away.
Then there's New Orleans, which is a lengthy trip across Interstate 20 and down I-59. More than 450 miles separate the two cities, but Stewart said plenty of family members made the trek to the Big Easy to see him play at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.
Among those who made the trip were nieces and nephews who saw Stewart play in person for the first time.
He sure made a good impression.
The Broncos free safety was all over the field as he pulled in two interceptions and plucked a fumble out of the air to help Denver secure a 25-23 win over the New Orleans Saints.
He ended the day as the first Broncos player since Deltha O'Neal (2001) to finish a game with three takeaways, and he was the first player in the league this season to accomplish the same feat.
And his teammates saw it coming. Rookie safety Will Parks – who made a mark in his own right after returning a blocked extra point for the game-deciding points – said Stewart was calling out the Saints' formations and plays all week. When the Broncos got to game day, Stewart made sure to take advantage.
"During the game, you could see he was near the ball," Parks said. "When the ball was in the air, he was always around it. Stew does that day in and day out, and he's playing at a Pro Bowl level right now."
Stewart, who said Sunday's game was the best he'd played at the NFL level and the best overall since high school, seemed to agree.
"I felt it this morning," Stewart said. "I felt it all week. I studied for it, too. So I expected it.
"When you watch a lot of film and you just constantly study, you get the familiar looks and it comes as second nature in the game."
The Broncos defeated the Saints 25-23 in an epic finish at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Photos by Eric Bakke, unless noted)
The first interception came with 2:34 to go in the first quarter as the Saints were driving into Broncos territory. Drew Brees unleashed a deep ball to Travaris Cadet on a go route, but Stewart undercut the route. More than the other two plays Stewart made, he attributed this one directly to film study.
Stewart's second interception came on the very next defensive play as Brees tried to feed the ball to Michael Thomas on a seam right. Cornerback Bradley Roby was there to deflect the pass, and Stewart was camped out in position to make a play on the ball.
But the third turnover might have been the most important.
With 13:42 to play, the Broncos down by seven points and the Saints holding the ball, Roby conceded a short pass to Thomas for 12 yards. Roby made up for the coverage on the tackle. As he wrapped his arm around Thomas, he punched the ball out.
It landed in Stewart's arms.
And when the ball was in the air, he couldn't wait for it to make its way to him.
"I was ready to make it," Stewart said. "I was like, 'Keep 'em coming. I've got three.' It was a good feeling. It was just good to do it for the team."
Instead of moving the chains on that Thomas reception, the Saints offense was forced to leave the field.
"Anybody that has three [turnovers in a game], that's probably the best game of any player," safety T.J. Ward said. "I don't care who you bring into the fold. That's a great game, probably the best game of any player's career.
"I just told him, 'I'm proud of you. Great game. Glad you had a game like that. You've been putting in the work.' He's been successful, but just to have that explosive game like that today, it's a great thing for [him] and the team."
It's not like Ward had a bad day. After Jared Crick forced a fumble with 3:15 remaining in the game, Ward recovered the ball and gave the Broncos the ball back at the Saints 13-yard line. Though the offense would tick just 18 seconds off the clock and settle for a field goal, the six-point lead forced the Saints to play for a touchdown at the end of regulation rather than a field goal.
And that was the key to the game in Stewart's eyes — every time the Broncos needed a play, the safeties came up with one.
Of course, the safeties had help from the rest of the secondary. Cornerback Bradley Roby gave up several costly completions, but he also got his hands on two footballs – once on a deflected pass and once when he punched the ball out to Stewart.
And even on the more routine plays, coverage from Roby, Chris Harris Jr., Kayvon Webster and Lorenzo Doss gave Stewart the freedom to roam.
"I challenged [the safeties]," Kubiak said. "When our guys get their hands on the ball, we play well. We didn't do that last week or a few weeks ago, but when our guys get their hands on the ball – I think Bradley knocked out a couple of those. Yeah, it was Bradley that actually knocked the ball out. They played exceptional today."
Perhaps it's no surprise that the secondary rose to the challenge. They've done it time and time again throughout the season. A timely interception against Carolina. A pick-six against Indianapolis. Two interceptions vs. Tampa Bay. A forced fumble against Atlanta. Another pick-six via Philip Rivers.
Again and again, the secondary has provided a spark. On Sunday, Stewart just happened to be the man of the hour.
"That's kind of how the season's going to go for us," Ward said. "Each guy's going to have their day.
"As long as somebody has a day, we'll be alright."