To the Broncos, safety P.J. Locke's fourth-quarter interception meant a thrilling victory at home. To Locke, the play meant so much more.
Filling in for starting safety Kareem Jackson, Locke made the defensive play of the game, hustling across the field to pick off a deep third-down throw by Packers quarterback Jordan Love. The Broncos' offense finished off the clock on its ensuing drive, securing a 19-17 victory.
"Honestly, I wanted to tear up," Locke said after the game. "Just felt like all of my emotions bottled up. I just wanted to celebrate with my guys. I finally got my first pick, many more to come. Just all of the stuff I've been through, at that moment I felt it."
The trials Locke endured on his way to his first career interception made the moment even sweeter. The fourth-year safety spent the beginning of the year on injured reserve with a lower leg injury and was activated to the roster on Oct. 7. Locke also battled injuries in prior seasons, but he emerged as a key special teams contributor and provided depth in the secondary.
Locke said that his fellow defensive backs encouraged him through adversity and spurred him on to stay engaged and ready to contribute.
"When I got on IR, I was discouraged," Locke said. "[Justin Simmons] and [Kareem Jackson], they pulled me over and [were] like, 'You have to stay engaged. Stay engaged with everybody, with the game plan, going to DB dinners and stuff like that.' Any time I was on the sideline, I was walking around with my iPad, following my DB coach, listening to every call on the field, seeing our team's mentality. I think that paid dividends for me."
The Broncos called Locke's number in the fourth quarter, and the Texas product delivered with the takeaway the Denver defense needed.
After the game, All-Pro safety Justin Simmons broke down why Locke's interception was so impressive.
"I normally don't do this, but they were in the perfect offensive play call for what we were running," Simmons said. "For anyone that goes back and watches the film, that is a one-on-one-type of play that P.J. made, basically playing the half field. To run just outside of the numbers [and] to come get [the] number two [receiver] running a deep over route and pick it [was impressive].
"[A] pass breakup is going to be a heck of a play, but [it's even more impressive] to have the pick to seal the game. I know he knows that was a big play. Everyone knows a big play, but I hope he gets the credit he deserves on that play because that was a heck of a play that not a lot of guys can make."
After making the interception with 1:45 remaining in regulation, Locke looked for open space but eventually decided to slide so the offense could safely seal the win.
Head Coach Sean Payton joked that he might have gotten involved if Locke continued returning the pick.
"It's his first interception in the NFL," Payton said. "I was excited for him. It was a big play, obviously. At that point, it was good to see him get on a knee. If he kept running, I might have tackled him."
Locke said the Broncos' next-man-up mentality gave him confidence to make the biggest play of his NFL career, regardless of the challenges he had to overcome or his position on the depth chart.
"It's a next-man mentality and I look at it as no drop-off," Locke said. "Somebody goes down, you can't have the mindset that I don't have [many] reps or anything like that. You just have to go in there and stay engaged and make plays."