DENVER --**When the Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders in March, they made a projection: that a supporting player could become one of the lead stars of an offensive masterpiece.
Until shuffling onto the mile-high stage, Sanders had not achieved the statistical milestones that separate prolific wide receivers from the vast pack of pass-catchers. Sanders had never posted a 1,000-yard season; his career high of 740 yards was accomplished last year. He'd never even had a 100-yard game; a six-catch, 98-yard effort in a 55-31 loss at New England last Nov. 3 was the closest he'd come.
But Sanders has raw tools: speed, quickness, and good hands. His production trended in the right direction during his four Steelers season. And his skill set could project to the outside or the slot, depending on how the Broncos used him.
Saturday brought tangible evidence that the projection will become reality. He exploded downfield and got open deep, catching touchdown passes of 67 and 29 yards.
"You just throw it as far as you can, and it's hard to out-throw that guy," said Manning.
The first touchdown was a perfectly placed deep ball that hit Sanders deep down the middle; he caught it in stride at the Houston 28-yard-line and outran two defenders to the southeast corner of the field. Sixty-two seconds later, Sanders capped a go route with a leaping grab five seconds before halftime.
"Peyton puts it on the money," said Sanders. "He takes pride in throwing the perfect football. He takes pride in being perfect all around, in general. He makes my job easy."
On game days, yes. But the work that made those plays possible began days after Sanders signed, when Manning invited him to Duke University for informal workouts. The duo began to develop their timing there, and continued through organized team activities and the first two weeks of training camp, when Sanders and Manning were typically among the last players to leave the field after each practice.
The extra work helped their timing. But Sanders believes it might have contributed to the quadriceps injury that dogged him most of this month.
"In Pittsburgh, I didn't run this much. And not only that, I think I worked myself into a strain of staying after practice, running a lot of routes, just wanting to be good, just wanting to be great," said Sanders. "Sometimes I've got to know that I'm a car, and you can only put a certain amount of mileage on a car before it starts to break down, so you live and then you learn, I guess."
Against the Texans, Sanders was a high-performance model. But the Broncos also need reliability -- especially with Wes Welker sidelined with his third concussion in 10 months, and potential backup Jordan Norwood lost for the season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in practice Wednesday.
Sanders said his quadriceps is "not 100 percent," but was in good shape after the game.
"The fact that he was able to practice on a Thursday and go in the game, I thought was significant," said Manning.
Not only because Sanders' quad passed the test of 39 first-half snaps and an array of routes, but because the timing that Manning and Sanders displayed early in training camp transferred to the field. Plays like the ones he made Saturday are why Sanders' name kept popping up in daily camp reports; his blend of consistency and explosiveness was impossible to ignore.
"I wanted to get some completions to him. I think you want to complete some passes to a first-year receiver in this offense going into the season opener," said Manning. "It certainly makes me feel a lot better going into the opener, as opposed to before."
And now that he's starred when the lights went on, the Broncos know what they have: a receiver poised to break out as a star. And if he's going to be a star, he needs a trademark sign-off.
Thus, the bow after his second touchdown.
"(The fans) are coming out here to watch us play, right? At the end of a show, you give a bow," he said. "I guess it's going to be my signature. I guess I'm going to start using it. I kind of like it."
A bravura performance. A standing ovation. A bow. Sanders looks ready for the big stage.