DENVER -- The ball came spiraling off of Andrew Luck's right hand, and Aqib Talib saw it all play out in front of him: the interception, the runback, the joyous celebration in the north end zone of a pick-six that would turn a tense game with the Indianapolis Colts into another Mile High jamboree.
Playing in a defensive alignment known as Vision, Talib had his eyes on the prize. He knew he could beat Indy receiver Phillip Dorsett to the football at the Colts' 46-yard line and possess it. And then? "Once I get the ball in my hands, that's the easy part," Talib said shortly before leaving a near-empty locker room following the Denver Broncos' 34-20 victory in front of 76,379 fans at Sports Authority Field. "Those offensive guys can't tackle me, man."
Sure enough, Talib was on an express trip to the end zone, dodging tight end Jack Doyle with a sweet jiggle at the 35, sliding to the left sideline as two more Indy players made futile dives at his legs and outrunning everyone, including angling wideout Chester Rogers, on his way to paydirt. It was the ninth interception returned for a touchdown of Talib's nine-year career -- a total that ranks him first among active NFL players, and which has been surpassed only by three others (Rod Woodson, Darren Sharper, Charles Woodson) in league history.
And it was an especially sweet moment given that a little more than three months earlier, Talib took a harrowing middle-of-the-night ride to a Dallas emergency room during which he feared his football days were over.
Talib has declined to discuss the details of an altercation near a Dallas club that left him with a gunshot wound to his right leg, likely because he has been advised to stay mum by his lawyers. Though law-enforcement officials investigated the possibility that Talib shot himself, he was not charged in the incident, and on Sunday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Talib is not likely to face NFL discipline.
After Sunday's victory, which put the defending NFL champions alone atop the AFC West with a 2-0 record, Talib opened up to NFL Media about the immediate aftermath of the shooting, during which a bullet entered through the rear of his right thigh and exited his right calf. He was driven in his Rolls Royce to Medical City Dallas and treated for the injury.
"It was scary as [expletive]," Talib said. "I mean, I really don't want to talk about that part, but there was a time when I was riding to the hospital, and I didn't know what was wrong with me -- I didn't know how long I was gonna be out; I didn't know if I was gonna walk again; I didn't know anything.
"I was definitely doing a lot of praying in that car, and God blessed the real believers, man. I was praying and praying... and, man, there was a lot going on."
Talib, who would end up missing only the first week of training camp, said he remained uncertain about the extent of his injury for several days.
"I had staples [in my leg] at first," he said. "I couldn't get an MRI till the staples came out. So all the way until the MRI, I really didn't know what the hell was wrong. It was crazy. It could've been whatever."
"It was third and long, and we know on the outside they like to run post corners -- '7-stops.' I saw a lot of pressure by the defense, so I just kind of sat down in my zone, and [Dorsett] ran a 7-stop right in front of me. So, good film study, great defensive-line play, and man, it was a big play."
To Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who was watching on the sidelines, it was a flashback to a scene that unfolded in practice late last week.
"It was the same play he made in practice on Thursday or Friday," Anderson said of Talib. "He bodied our practice-squad receiver and picked it off, so I knew exactly what to expect. And then once he gets that ball in his hands... well, he runs the ball like a running back. That was the best juke I've seen in awhile."
Said star outside linebacker Von Miller, whose strip sack of Luck resulted in the Broncos' second defensive touchdown of the final quarter, a 15-yard fumble return by Shane Ray: "Did you see [Talib] run out there? When he gets in the open field, anything can happen. But I want you to be aware, I made a great block on that play. He made a lot of great moves, but I made a great block."
In other words: These Broncos are so good on defense that their defensive stars can engage in legitimate, lighthearted arguments over whose offensive contributions are more striking.
"It's just vision, man," Talib said of his penchant for touchdown returns, five of which have come since he joined the Broncos in 2014 -- a franchise record. "I don't have that crazy speed. You follow directions, do what the coach says, go to the near sideline, and you'll get a touchdown."
It sounds simple -- but, of course, Talib is downplaying the drama. Perhaps that's understandable, given the real-life drama he endured on that scary June drive to the hospital.
"I'm just glad to be here," he said before exiting the stadium and heading out into the temperate Rocky Mountain night. "This is what I love to do."
Talib's love of the end zone was on full display Sunday night, and the Broncos are extremely grateful.