Then came the call with the news he was headed west to the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers. Contention again became reality for The Veteran, who understood it was time for he and the Broncos to go their separate ways, even if he didn't see it ending like this. Now, he's just days away from playing in his third Super Bowl.
"I never expected it, but at the same time, I'm happy," Sanders said of his journey from a struggling Broncos team to Super Bowl LIV as a member of the 49ers. "I'm so grateful and honored to be in this position, truthfully. Like I said, I still got a lot of love for the Broncos. I still bleed orange and blue. I won a Super Bowl there as well. To be a part of this night, this organization, they accepted me with open arms. I'm so appreciative of it to be sitting here right now."
While his younger teammates might just be happy to be here, taking photos and soaking in the moment Monday during Super Bowl Opening Night, Sanders made one thing painstakingly clear: He's here to win.
"Sometimes, when you win the NFC Championship Game you get a lot of pats on the back," Sanders said. "They treat you as if you won it all, like you won the World Series, like you won the Super Bowl, when truthfully you haven't. You just got to the big game. So you have to block out all the positivity that's feeding your ego to say 'you know what, we're going out here because we're going out here to win. We're not going out here to be happy that we're playing in this game. We're coming out here to win.' So we can try to do something special so we can live together forever."
Sanders isn't taking this moment for granted. With 10 years in the league and free agency on the horizon, he could soon be putting on different colors for the fourth time in his career. There's no guarantee staying or leaving will bring him back to this stage, either.
As such, he's making the most of the moment, sharing the wisdom gained from a decade in the NFL with his much younger teammates. Instead of being seen as the elder with stories of grandeur and little else, he's looking to capitalize on the opportunity by taking his fellow 49ers under his wing and leading them out the door toward possible sporting glory, even if he hasn't been with the team for very long.
"He's been a tremendous leader since he's gotten here since Day 1," Staley said. "He's fit seamlessly in here. I think it's been a great fit for him coming in. We've got a really veteran locker room, we have a very close locker room. Him coming in and giving that more veteran leadership and then really buying into what we're doing offensively. You have a guy who's been in his career for so long and been successful to come in and show the young guys like 'hey, I bought in, you gotta be bought in as well.' He's been a tremendous help."
Sanders will do whatever it takes to win. In the NFC Championship Game, he realized along with the rest of the world the Niners would likely reach the Super Bowl on the ground, not through the air. While a lack of targets might irk younger pass-catchers in the NFL, Sanders turned to helping in the best remaining way possible: Blocking.
"I don't want to be laying in bed at night time saying 'damn, if I would've made that block he would've sprung and probably would've scored a touchdown.' I don't want to be that guy," Sanders said. "I try to give it my all, try to block as long as possible because one of the greatest feelings is when you're blocking a guy, you see a running back run right behind your block and scores a touchdown, it's better than scoring a touchdown truthfully. So I enjoy doing that."