Emmanuel Sanders hauled in a career-high three touchdowns on 120 yard and nine receptions to lead the first-place Denver Broncos to a 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night. Our takeaways:
1. Steelers fans have to be wondering where this version of a well-rounded, playmaking Sanders was in Pittsburgh. Before arriving in Denver, he had never recorded a multiple-touchdown game or a 100-yard performance in his five-year career. A quarter of his 16 career touchdowns have come in the past two weeks. He has gone over the century mark in four of the past six games. The Broncos haven’t missed a beat with Sanders replacing Eric Decker. Sanders’ speed has taken the top off of defenses, and he’s shown a penchant for spectacular grabs. Between a series of lower-leg injuries and a relegation to inside routes, he never had a chance to blossom with Ben Roethlisberger. It helps, of course, that Peyton Manning throws the most catchable ball in the league.
2. As transcendent as J.J. Watt has been this season, it’s time to start adding Von Miller‘s name to the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Miller extended his NFL-best sack streak to six games and has made just as many plays at or behind the line of scrimmage in the run game. He’s the best player on the best defense of Manning’s career.
3. Montee Ball isn’t getting his starting job back. Running with confidence and even starting to show a semblance of power, Ronnie Hillman has improved every week as Ball’s replacement in the starting lineup. The boxscore doesn’t do justice to his impressive footwork and breakaway speed. Hillman had a 33-yard touchdown run nullified by penalty and was ruled just out of bounds at the 3-yard line on another potential score. His final statline could easily have read 174 yards and two touchdowns on 24 touches. He’s simply a better fit for this offense.
4. Philip Rivers remains in the MVP discussion, but his dink-and-dunk, time-consuming attack isn’t built to come from behind against a quality opponent.
5. Branden Oliver can’t be blamed for his poor stat line. The Broncos‘ defensive front shut down the line of scrimmage, leaving no holes for the impressive undrafted rookie. The defense also devoted a spy to him in the passing game, shutting down his run-after-catch ability. DeMarco Murray would have struggled to find positive yardage behind the Chargers‘ offensive line.
6. Beyond Miller, the Broncos defense has a lot of great stories. Cut several times by the Jaguars, linebacker Brandon Marshall has been a pleasant surprise as Danny Trevathan‘s fill-in. Aqib Talib deflected a deep pass and made several plays to shut down passes close to the line of scrimmage. First-round cornerback Bradley Roby looks like a future star. Nine months removed from ACL surgery, Chris Harris has been one of the NFL’s most effective slot corners. It’s not unrealistic to believe the Broncos will finish with the NFL’s top-ranked offense and defense.
8. Antonio Gates broke Hall of Famer Lance “Bambi” Allworth’s franchise record for receiving yards. The 34-year-old tight end is also the Chargers‘ all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns. After Thursday’s game, he’s tied with Julius Thomas for the NFL lead with nine receiving touchdowns. Second tight end Ladarius Green was a non-factor, draw just one target late in the fourth quarter.
9. Wes Welker was an afterthought in the Broncos offense, catching just two passes for five yards on two targets. He’s averaging just 36 yards per game this season, which is less than half of his average (77 yards) over the past seven years.