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Back and better than before: Career day for Courtland Sutton paces Broncos' offense in 23-13 win

What a difference a year makes.

Three hundred and sixty four days ago, a battered Courtland Sutton lay on the Heinz Field grass in Pittsburgh with a bruised shoulder and a torn ACL.

His follow-up act to his 2019 Pro Bowl performance ended prematurely, just 31 snaps into his season.

But in Jacksonville on Sunday, there was no doubt that Sutton had moved past the injury and the months of rehab that followed.

"He's back," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the Broncos' 23-13 win over the Jaguars.

In fact, he may be even better.

Sutton tore past his previous career high in receiving yardage — a 120-yard performance against the Raiders to kick off the 2019 season — as he caught nine passes for 159 yards. His nine receptions were also a career best.

Sutton's 159 yards were the most by a Broncos receiver since Emmanuel Sanders posted 162 against the Chiefs in November of 2016.

"You get into a rhythm," Sutton said. "You kind of just take each play as it comes to you. … The stats and everything, they take care of themselves. At the end of the day, if you go out there take each play as it comes to you, my coach always says each play has a life of its own. If you have that mentality, that mindset, at the end of the day you look up and … the stats will take care of themselves."

Two of Sutton's plays stood above the rest and proved critical in the Broncos' ability to respond after a sluggish start to the game. Late in the second quarter, on a third-and-6 with the Broncos trailing by four points, Sutton ran a comeback route in the middle of the field to pick up the conversion. Denver would score several plays later to take the halftime lead.

Sutton's next catch effectively put the game out of reach. On the Broncos' second snap of the third quarter, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater connected with Sutton for a 55-yard reception that put the Broncos in scoring range. Two plays later, Denver pushed their lead to double digits.

"There's a lot of big plays in every game, but the catch he made in the first drive of the second half there for the big one was critical," Fangio said. "I felt they were outplaying us at the ball, both sides of the ball — their DBs against our wideouts and our DBs against their wideouts. We needed to flip that, and that was an exclamation point there in flipping it."

The deep shot to Sutton was a long time coming. Earlier in the game, Bridgewater twice looked for Sutton down the field. On the first, the Jacksonville defender appeared to tug Sutton's jersey from behind on several occasions. On the ensuing attempt to Sutton, the defender made contact before the ball arrived. Neither play was penalized for pass interference — and Sutton said he refused to allow frustration to take over.

"You've got to play through it," Sutton said. "If they call it, they call it. If they don't, it is what it is. It's not like I can go out there and yell at the ref and then they will throw the flag two plays later. It is what it is. You take the game as it comes to you. And the ball finds you in crazy ways throughout the game. And you can't dwell on the things that happened in the past."

Sutton's performance serves as a reminder of his game-changing ability and illustrates why General Manager George Paton has called Sutton one of the team's core players. He turned in the performance after catching just one pass in Week 1.

"Last week, it wasn't like we weren't looking for him or he wasn't open or anything like that," Fangio said. "It's just the way the plays went last week with the reads for Teddy and the play design. I knew he was ready for a big game. I didn't know if it'd be today or next week or the following week, but I knew he was ready for a big game."

In the short term, Sutton's showing also serves as reassurance that the Broncos' passing attack can continue to find success as Jerry Jeudy recovers from a high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve.

Sutton's game was about more than his nine catches — and the one he made in the locker room as Fangio tossed him a game ball. It was a measuring stick for how far he's traveled since his injury last September.

"You talk about Court, how hard he's worked, the sacrifice he's made to get back to this point," Bridgewater said. "[He's] a Pro Bowl receiver, and we saw that today."

Three hundred and sixty four days removed from his injury, Sutton sure gave quite the reminder of that fact.

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