Emmanuel Sanders was just 23 years old when he was thrust under the bright lights at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. for the AFC Championship game in 2011.
As a rookie out of SMU, the 5-foot-11 receiver wasn’t afraid of the biggest moment at that point of his young NFL career. Instead, he remembered what his teammate Hines Ward had told him — and the rest of the Steelers roster — before their playoff run even began.
“I remember Hines was like ‘all of the other extracurricular activities you guys are doing, get rid of those,’” Sanders recalled Wednesday afternoon inside of the 49ers auditorium at Levi’s Stadium. “‘Let’s hone in on trying to do something special right now,’ and we were able to do that.”
Including that 24-19 win over the Jets, Sanders has been a part of two conference championship wins — the second coming in 2016 with the Denver Broncos. On Sunday, he’ll suit up for this third as the 49ers will take on the Green Bay Packers with an NFC title at stake in Santa Clara.
Considering that nearly 80 percent of San Francisco’s roster had never played a postseason game before last Saturday and only six active players have appeared in a conference title game, Sanders, along with the other experienced veterans on the team, hope to provide some of the same encouragement and wisdom to this 49ers team as Ward did for those Steelers almost a decade ago.
“That’s what I’ve been kind of telling the young guys as well,” Sanders said. “Let’s lock in for like two or three weeks and at the end of all of it, hopefully we’ll be saying we’re the world champs.”
After a 13-3 season that soared high above the expectations most had for the 49ers heading into the year, San Francisco faced its first true test of the season, which came with no margin for error in its first playoff game in six years.
While the 49ers emerged with a 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, who had just taken out the NFC South-winning Saints in New Orleans the week prior, the score didn’t entirely reflect the sheerly dominant performance San Francisco had orchestrated.
With 186 yards on the ground, the 49ers had laid the second-largest rushing total Minnesota had given up all season. Only the Seattle Seahawks, who ran for 218 yards on 43 carries, had registered more.
On top of that, San Francisco’s defense held Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who finished the season as the No. 10 rusher in the league through the regular season, to just 26 all-purpose yards and the Vikings offense to just 10 points.
According to starting left tackle Joe Staley, who has been a 49er since 2007 and has played in three NFC Championship games as well as a Super Bowl in 2013, he told his team to approach the game the same as any other this season.
“The playoffs might seem like a bigger deal and there are more eyes on you,” he said. “This stuff maybe creates some anxiety in the players who haven’t been there before but it’s the same exact game. It’s the same exact thing.”
Sanders, who won a Super Bowl with Denver in 2016, can relate to the anxiety Staley was talking about.
He can vividly remember watching the clock wind down in the second half of that AFC Championship game in 2010 after the Steelers had built a sizable lead on the New York Jets, who scored 16 unanswered points after halftime in an attempt to stage a comeback win.
“We got up on ‘em pretty good,” Sanders recalled “Just run the ball and go to the Super Bowl.”
The Steelers did prevail that day, beating Mark Sanchez’s Jets, 24-19. Sanders caught one pass for 20 yards alongside fellow rookie Antonio Brown making his first of two Super Bowl appearances in his nine-year career.
Sanders doesn’t see those same nerves in the current 49ers roster, though, particularly their receiving corps, which is comprised of several young pieces essential to San Francisco’s passing game.
Third-year wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel and even third-year tight end George Kittle all showed up in Sanders’ eyes, unwilling to falter on the game’s biggest stage.
“I don’t even think they know,” Sanders said. “A lot of them are just so loose. I feel like we have a great core of guys… Guys are just being themselves. They don’t even feel the pressure. They don’t even know what’s going on.”
That’s where Sanders, who has played in nine playoff games, believes he can come in: To tell them exactly what’s going on as the 49ers are now on the verge of competing for the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title.
The first step, however, will be getting past the Green Bay Packers and their leader Aaron Rodgers, who’s played in three NFC Championship games and won one Super Bowl, ironically against Sanders’ Steelers in 2011.
To do this, Sanders believes San Francisco will need the utmost focus, which he’s helped instill in the 49ers locker room over the last few weeks, to accomplish its ultimate goal of qualifying for and winning the Super Bowl.
“[After that] the offseason is yours,” Sanders says he told his teammates. “They’ll be calling you champs all the way until next season.”