By Andrew Kahn
The Denver Broncos improved to 6-1 with a 35-21 home win over the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night. The Broncos have a strong hold on the AFC West lead as they enter a three-game road stretch. The banged-up Chargers (5-3) get an extra few days of rest before facing Miami, then a much-needed bye week.
Emmanuel, Emannuel… Emmanuel
It's been quite the week for first-year Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders after four unremarkable seasons in Pittsburgh. After catching his first touchdown in a Broncos uniform on Sunday, he caught all three of Peyton Manning's touchdown passes last night. Manning, who entered the game with the league's leading receivers as far as yardage (Demaryius Thomas) and touchdowns (Julius Thomas), and a guy who led the NFL in receptions three times (Wes Welker) at his disposal, wasn't always looking to Sanders as his first option on Thursday. But after he caught his first touchdown in the back of the end zone, you could see the confidence between the two grow. Sanders is listed at 5'11" but has tremendous hops and an ability to snag passes among a crowd of defenders.
Reality beats fantasy
It wasn't just Sanders who surprised many fantasy owners. While Manning can always be counted on for a big game, Denver's other usual suspects — the Thomases, Welker, and whoever is starting at running back (in this case, Ronnie Hillman) — were relatively quiet. Demaryius Thomas still cracked 100 yards, but only Sanders found the end zone. Hillman helped Denver march down the field, finishing with 109 yards, but Juwan Thompson, an undrafted rookie out of Duke, was handed the ball near the end zone, scoring on 1- and 2-yard runs. For San Diego, Keenan Allen rewarded his owners with his first touchdown of the season. He's by far the Chargers' leading receiver as far as receptions, but Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal had been hogging the scores.
Dominant Denver D
Denver completely shut down San Diego's rushing attack and short screen game. Branden Oliver, who'd been playing well in place of Ryan Mathews, had just 13 yards on 12 carries before a meaningless 23-yard run on the game's final play. Philip Rivers' lone scramble-turned-run, for 17 yards, outperformed all other Chargers backs to that point. Denver's run defense is much improved from last year, and there were (are) questions surrounding San Diego's offensive line, so this was not entirely unexpected. Still, the Chargers' inability to get anything going on the ground put too much pressure on Rivers, who threw two picks, including one late that sealed the game.
With the game tied at 7, it looked like the Chargers might get the ball at Denver's 28-yard line after the Broncos fumbled a kick return. The ruling on the field was overturned, however. Denver retained possession, scored to take a 14-7 lead, and never looked back. The player's forearm was certainly down before the ball came loose, but was the ball starting to move before that? It appeared so, but the replay official didn't agree. At the start of the fourth, Eric Weddle made a fantastic interception of a Manning pass in the end zone, but the play was called back on defensive holding from another Charger. Again, questionable. Denver scored on the next play to go up three scores. After San Diego responded with a touchdown to stay alive, Weddle forced a fumble that could have easily been recovered by a teammate. It wasn't. None of this is to say the Chargers deserved to win, or should have. But had one or two of these bad breaks gone their way, the result may have been different.
The Chargers forced a punt on Denver's first two possessions on Thursday. They surrendered touchdowns on five of the next six drives. They allowed 425 yards total (a 286/139 pass-run split) and didn't force any turnovers. San Diego had no success getting to Peyton Manning, maybe brushing up against him, after he released the ball, once or twice. Injuries didn't help. Cornerback Jason Verrett played, to the surprise of many, but was ineffective and was in a sling by halftime. Brandon Flowers was inactive with a concussion. Steve Williams, another member of the secondary, also did not suit up. That's a recipe for disaster against Peyton Manning, and he made the Chargers pay.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about the NFL and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.
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