SEATTLE — Many of the questions surrounding the offense in the past few weeks centered on the second half.
"What changed?" was the common query repeated by members of the media as they tried to get a feel for why the offense struggled to find its feet just a short while after they rolled through defenses in the first couple quarters of the first two games.
Sunday in Seattle, the team answered not only questions about their effectiveness in the second half, but they answered the Seahawks' offense.
Momentum began to swing starting with a relentless rush from the defensive line to force a safety and later with an interception by Chris Harris Jr. helped by a friendly tip from Aqib Talib. The offense, seemingly revitalized, pushed back against Seattle's highly touted defense. They turned the turnover into seven points on a shovel pass to Julius Thomas, thereby cutting the deficit to just five points.
They weren't yet satisfied, but their following 57-yard drive ended abruptly with an interception.
The Broncos' defense returned to the field and held Seattle to a field goal, keeping it a one-possession game and keeping them from eating up much of the clock.
The offense had to make like a microwave with just a minute in which to get hot.
And they did just that, marching 80 yards in just six plays and 35 seconds. Peyton Manning would connect with Jacob Tamme on a 26-yard toss, and Manning would convert a two-point conversion on a throw to Demaryius Thomas to send the game to overtime.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks' offense would get the chance to run away with the game, winning the coin toss and taking the ball to the end zone in the first possession of overtime on a 13-play drive.
Tough loss aside, the Broncos finally got over the hump of proving their offense wasn't getting stuck in a rut once halftime ended.
A major part of the offense's successes Sunday afternoon was once again wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who leads the league in receptions and is third overall in receiving yards as of Monday morning.
Coming off his first career 100-yard receiving game in Week 2, Sanders followed it with an even better performance. The speedy wideout caught 11 passes for 149 yards, including a 42-yard bomb on their last drive.
But Sanders was dejected in the locker room after the game. It was the best NFL performance of his young career—and against one of the best defenses in recent history, no less—but it was also a loss.
"It feels good to catch a lot of balls but at the end of the day that doesn't matter," Sanders said. "My personal achievements don't matter if we have an L in the loss column. I'm not happy about that and I know [Manning's] not."
The growing connection with Manning has been evident in the first three games. Manning has looked to Sanders from the get-go, and they connected often and early once again. After a Montee Ball fumble on the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, their next possession benefited from four Sanders catches for a total of 41 yards.
Sanders was Manning's favorite receiver in the game with 15 targets, six more than the next receiver. And even though he was too down in the dumps about the loss to fully enjoy his great game, he acknowledged that they're growing greater chemistry by the day. Sanders said that he's been finding his groove thanks to his work ethic.
"I go into every game not even thinking about anything, just knowing that I'm in the prime of my game," he said. "I feel confident in my game. That's all based off just me working my butt off in practice, just trying to get better. And I'm going to continue to try to get better."
He was also encouraged by the offense's second-half improvement and adjustments, which had been previously a point of difficulty in the first two games.
"Yeah, we started to figure them out. They do a good job. They run one coverage and one coverage only and they have mastered that coverage," Sanders said. "Eventually I just feel like we started to understand what we needed to do and that was double moves and things of that sort that exploited the defense that they were running. [...] At some point the competitive nature in you has to take over. That's what happened towards the end. We saw that we were still in the game and we still had an opportunity and we just started competing even more and started wanting it even more, not saying we didn't at the beginning."
And so the Broncos began to find openings and turn the tide of momentum in their favor. Sanders felt like they were going to win the game, the way it was going in the last quarter.
"I think everyone on the sideline was thinking that," he said. "It was unfortunate they went down and scored. [...] We didn't get an opportunity that I think everyone on offense wanted."
Despite the sullen mood, Sanders still thinks there are plenty of positives to take away from this game, though he and plenty of other Broncos were quick to downplay any talk that this was a moral victory.
"It's sad we walk away with a loss, but at the same time it's still good to have adversity, it's still good to go through adversity," a glum Sanders said, also putting his finger on a positive to take from the game.
With the bye week ahead of them, Sanders and the Broncos can take the game and try to extract the lessons about what they did well and what they can improve upon, as Sanders said after the game.
"We take the positives that we came back, we answered the bell, scored a touchdown and then the two-point conversion. We kept the game alive and took it to overtime even though we were trailing the entire game. Throughout the season you're going to go through adversity. It's just a little bump in the road. It's something that we can overcome and we will overcome."