It was the marquee matchup of Week 8 between two of the AFC's best teams battling for the top spot in the AFC West. In the end the Denver Broncos (6-1) were too much for the San Diego Chargers (5-3) in a 35-21 victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Broncos offense with their quartet of receiving weapons has given quarterback Peyton Manning the luxury of spreading the ball around, allowing a different receiving star each week. It had been Demaryius Thomas (8 rec., 105 yards) and Julius Thomas at the forefront of the offensive attack the last couple of weeks. On Thursday night the Chargers defense had their focus on the Thomases as Demaryius was doubled-teamed most of the night and Julius Thomas was held to just two catches.
Enter Emmanuel Sanders who had a career game at wide receiver as he hauled in all three of Manning's touchdown passes. Sanders, who has brought speed down the field that the Broncos lacked last season, finished the night with nine catches for 120 yards. This was Sanders' first multi-touchdown performance. How good is it to be in Denver catching balls from Manning? Sanders had never had a 100-yard receiving game until this season. He has tallied four 100-yard games in his last six starts.
"Every week we don't know where the ball is going to go," Sanders said. "The defense really dictates that and what Peyton is seeing. And tonight was just my night."
Ronnie Hillman's performance has rejuvenated the Broncos ground game since replacing the injured Montee Ball. Hillman picked up 109 rushing yards on 20 carries that included a demonstration of his breakaway speed with a run of 37 yards in the third quarter. A possession earlier, Hillman had a touchdown run of 33 yards that was called back due to a holding penalty on left guard Orlando Franklin. Hillman has recorded two 100-yard rushing games in his last three starts. That is the performance the Broncos have been looking for since they made Hillman their third round draft pick in 2012.
"I think they're as good with game-changing players as they've ever had," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "From their quarterback to receivers to their pass rusher to their corners, I think it's a unique group."
Where Hillman is the speedster, Rookie running back Juwan Thompson is the bulldozer as he plowed through the Chargers goal-line defense for two touchdowns from the two and one yard line.
Manning finished the night completing 25-of-35 passes for 286 yards. His three touchdowns extend his all-time TD record to 513.
The Chargers came in to the game with their secondary banged up but it was their running game that was the difference between last year's win in Denver and this year's loss. In their 2013 Thursday night matchup, the Chargers ground game amassed 177 yards that included 127 yards and one touchdown from Ryan Matthews. The ground game helped the Chargers hold on to the ball for 38:49 and sideline Manning.
This time around Matthews was not on the field due to injury and the Broncos defense stifled his replacement, holding Brandon Oliver to just 36 yards on 13 carries. 23 of those yards came on one play. The Broncos held on to the ball for 1:32 longer than the Chargers.
"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."
The game began with a scoreless first quarter as both teams exchanged punts. It took three plays into the second quarter before the scoreboard was cracked on a 2-yard Manning pass in the endzone for Sanders' first touchdown of the night.
The Chargers would answer back late in the second quarter as Rivers demonstrated his ability to move away from the pass rush in the pocket. On a third-and-20 from the Denver 33-yard line, Rivers hit tight end Antonio Gates for a 31-yard gain. One play later Keenan Allen would catch a 2-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to tie up the game with 3:32 remaining in the half.
The Broncos were aggressive on defense as they pressured Rivers all night. Von Miller's sack of Rivers in the second quarter extended his league leading sack total to eight and made it six consecutive games with a sack, the longest in the NFL.
The Broncos would score again with :39 remaining as Manning hit Sanders on the run for a 31-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-7 lead into halftime.
The Chargers received the ball first in the third quarter but ended up turning the ball over on a third-and-19 pass from their own 19-yard line that was intercepted by cornerback Chris Harris Jr. at the Chargers 37-yard line. An unnecessary roughness call on Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson pushed the Broncos back to their own 49-yard line.
The Broncos would capitalize on the turnover as Manning connected with Sanders for his third touchdown reception of the game to go up 21-7 with 10:58 left in the third quarter.
After falling behind 28-7 following Thompson's 2-yard rushing touchdown, the Chargers offense would get it going on an 80 yard, 12 play drive. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the Denver 4-yard line, Rivers would find Gates for the touchdown with 2:43 left in the third quarter.
The Chargers defense couldn't stop the Broncos offense as they came back on their next possession with a scoring drive that ended with Thompson's second touchdown run at the goal line to push the Broncos lead to 35-14 with 13:34 left in the game.
The Chargers would get one more touchdown as Rivers connected with Gates on his second touchdown reception of the night to make it 35-21 with 9:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers had one final chance to pull to within a touchdown of the Broncos. On first-and-10 from the Denver 45-yard line with 4:49 to go in the game, under pressure Rivers would throw up a long pass that safety Rahim Moore would intercept at the 29-yard line.
The interception would end any comeback hopes the Chargers had as the Broncos would run the clock down and punt the ball back to San Diego with just :18 remaining in the game.
Rivers ended the night completing 30-of-41 passes for 252 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Broncos have now won four straight and become the first six win team in the AFC with control of the AFC West. The Chargers fall to 5-3 and head into Week 9 on a two game losing streak.
Peyton Manning has thrown a touchdown pass in 46 straight games, the longest streak in the NFL.
Antonio Gates became the Chargers' all-time leader in receiving yards with 9,610.
The Chargers take on the Miami Dolphins in 10 days on November 2nd.
The Broncos head to Boston to take on the New England Patriots on November 2nd.
Linebacker Lamin Barrow sustained a concussion.
|Red Zone (Made-Att)||3-3||4-4|
|Time of Possession||29:14||30:46|
|Philip Rivers (SD)||30/41||252||6.1||3||2||2||92.7|
|Peyton Manning (DEN)||25/35||286||8.2||3||0||0||124.2|
|Branden Oliver (SD)||12||13||1.1||0||17||0|
|Ronnie Hillman (DEN)||20||109||5.5||0||37||0|
|Keenan Allen (SD)||9||73||8.1||1||19||13|
|Emmanuel Sanders (DEN)||9||120||13.3||3||38||9|
|Eric Weddle (SD)||11||9|
|Brandon Marshall (DEN)||10||8|
|Von Miller (DEN)||1|
|Chris Harris Jr.||1||1||1|
|Nick Novak (SD)||0/0||0.0||0|
|Brandon McManus (DEN)||0/1||0.0||0|
|Mike Scifres (DEN)||4||197||49.3||58|
|W L T||PCT||Home||Road||Div||AFC||PF||PA||Diff||Streak|
|Denver||6 1 0||.857||5-0||1-1||2-0||4-0||224||142||+82||Won 4|
|San Diego||5 3 0||.625||3-1||2-2||1-2||4-2||205||149||+56||Lost 2|
|Kansas City||3 3 0||.500||1-1||2-2||1-1||3-2||142||121||+21||Won 1|
|Oakland||0 6 0||.000||0-4||0-2||0-1||0-5||92||158||-66||Lost 6|