DENVER — With this much speed and acceleration, it’s no surprise Emmanuel Sanders is so adept at catching up.
Sanders waited six long weeks to join the list of players who have caught a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning. Now, he has four in less than a week.
“We understand in this offense, it can be anyone’s night at any moment,” said Sanders, who didn’t catch his first TD pass for Denver until Sunday night, when Manning set the career record. “I’m just happy tonight was my night.”
Sanders caught all nine passes Manning threw his way and gained 120 yards Thursday night.
He needs just 106 more yards to top his best season he ever had in four years in Pittsburgh. That’s all in a night’s work for Sanders, who has four career 100-yard receiving games, all this season.
“I’m enjoying playing with him,” Manning said. “He’s got a great work ethic. He really loves football and he brings that energy to practice every day and also to the playing field. … He was pretty special tonight.”
With the Chargers’ banged-up secondary double-teaming red-hot receiver Demaryius Thomas, Sanders caught TD throws of 2, 31 and 3 yards. The last one followed Chris Harris Jr.’s interception of a flustered Philip Rivers.
Rookie running back Juwan Thompson added two TD runs as the Broncos (6-1) tightened their grip on the AFC West over the Chargers (5-3), who lost their second straight game.
“It’s an accomplishment for the room,” said Ronnie Hillman, who carried 20 times for 109 yards. “It’s a touchdown for the room. He’s taking them, but that’s all right. He earns them. That’s a tough 2 yards to get. I’m just playing my role getting him down there.”
Manning finished 25 of 35 for 286 yards with three TDs and no interceptions or sacks five nights after breaking Brett Favre’s career touchdown mark.
Sanders’ speed, combined with Hillman’s second gear, is the juice GM John Elway had in mind when he said the Broncos could be better this year than they were last season.
“John Elway and his staff went out and wanted to increase our team speed in all phases of the game and I think we’ve done that,” coach John Fox said.
Sanders called Denver “wide receivers’ heaven” when he joined the Broncos in the spring. He spent his first five games in a Broncos uniform piling up the yards — 473 of them — but wistfully wishing to become the 45th player to catch a touchdown pass from Manning.
The only blemish in Sanders’ breakout night was his fumble in the fourth quarter that Wes Welker recovered.
His teammates teased him that he’ll be carrying around the football with the green beanie as punishment next week.
“But it’s not big deal,” Sanders said. “It’s only going to make me better.”
Each time Thompson scored, Rivers and the Chargers responded with 80-yard drives that ended with touchdown catches by tight end Antonio Gates. His first score was a 4-yard grab on fourth down, his second a 10-yard catch with 9 1/2 minutes left that made it 35-21.
Rivers finished 30 of 41 for 252 yards with three TDs and two interceptions.
Brandon McManus missed a 53-yard field goal with six minutes remaining, giving the Chargers great field position, but safety Rahim Moore intercepted Rivers’ pass to Malcolm Floyd at the Denver 4 and the Broncos grounded it out from there.
With Sanders having a big day, Demaryius Thomas quietly topped 100 yards himself for the fourth straight week, finishing with 105 yards on eight catches, a team record.
Manning broke another of Favre’s records on this night, albeit a much more obscure one: he now has 16 seasons with 20 or more touchdown passes, one more than Favre. And he’s approaching another of Favre’s marks: with his 157th career multiple TD game, Manning is two shy of Favre’s mark in that category.
After losing at home to the Chargers on a Thursday night in December — Denver’s only home loss last season — the Broncos changed their work week. They practiced without pads and helmets.
But their first two drives led to punts as defensive coordinator John Pagano again found ways to thwart Manning even with a banged-up secondary that was missing cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (concussion) and Steve Williams (groin).
Then, Sanders starting finding the end zone.
“They’re better than us right now,” San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. “That’s the reality of it. It’s a long season. When we meet them again, however many more times, we’ll be better.”
Even Manning found something he didn’t like on his and Sanders’ big night.
He didn’t like it when the scoreboard operator fired up the crowd when the Broncos were trying to chew up the clock.
“I’m not sure what he’s doing, he’s playing music and showing players dancing and getting the crowd fired up when we have the ball,” Manning complained. “I don’t think we should be doing that. I don’t think we should be showing their quarterback on the sideline. I thought that was disrespectful.
“Our fans are great. Our fans are loud. Our scoreboard operator, it wasn’t his best night.”
Gates became the Chargers’ career leader in yards receiving with 9,610, breaking the mark set by Hall of Fame WR Lance Alworth (9,584). … Broncos LB Lamin Barrow sustained a concussion.
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