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In Broncos' win, Emmanuel Sanders worthy of salute

DENVER --The Broncos have nothing but thoroughbreds in their stable of top pass catchers. Any of them could be the primary target at any time. And one could be asked to pick up the slack for another in the case of injury or a mistake.

That's teamwork. Wide receiver is the most individual of positions on offense; it's often you against one man. But the Broncos' receivers are a collective of stars, and with only one quarterback and one football, you're not always going to get the opportunities that others might find.

"We understand in this offense that it can be anyone's night at any moment," said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "Every week, we don't know where the ball is going to go. We run pretty much the same plays, the defense really dictates (where the ball goes)."

In Thursday's 35-21 win over the San Diego Chargers, it was his. Sanders scored the Broncos' first three touchdowns, caught the game's first pass and all eight others thrown his way, accounted for two of the Broncos' three longest gains, notched a 6-yard run on a jet sweep for good measure, and added to his growing reputation as one of the league's most explosive targets.

Such performances are now routine for Sanders, who has four 100-yard games in the last six and is on pace for a year in which he could shatter every personal best he accomplished in Pittsburgh. With 107 yards in New England on Nov. 2, he will match his previous career high for yardage. He's two touchdowns away from his previous career high, and is on pace for 107 catches -- almost as many as he had in the last two seasons combined.

In four years in Pittsburgh, his physical gifts jumped off the film. But as Peyton Manning continues to learn, there was something more.

"I didn't know what kind of speed that he had," said Manning. "I asked a couple people that had coached him or that had played against him and tried to get a little scouting report just so you'd have an idea. The best way is just to get with him and start throwing passes to him.

"He was much faster than I anticipated and he's got that acceleration where he's a hard guy to overthrow."

With Manning firing passes, is this "wide receiver heaven," as Sanders declared this offseason? It might be, but it's still Colorado, with a record-breaking quarterback at the controls, the ability to leave opponents out of breath and so many quality targets that an opposing defense has no choice but to cross its fingers and take its chances on leaving its No. 4 cornerback in man coverage.

That's what the Chargers had at their disposal after Jason Verrett aggravated his shoulder injury Thursday, four days after Brandon Flowers suffered a concussion. That left veteran Richard Marshall to face Sanders.

Marshall lined up within two yards of the line of scrimmage, then could only turn and try to keep pace as Sanders accelerated past him and gained five feet of separation inside the 5-yard-line. That was more than enough to grab the well-placed pass from Manning for a 31-yard touchdown that put the Broncos in front to stay just before halftime.

"The go route was just pure speed on his part and he has that," said Manning.

Even before Verrett departed, Sanders beat the talented, first-round rookie. The game's longest play from scrimmage, a 38-yard post route in the first quarter, came at the expense of Verrett and safety Eric Weddle.

Verrett and Weddle offered proper coverage to Sanders' route. But Manning delivered a perfect throw, and Sanders made a fearless catch between the two defenders.

However, Sanders isn't perfect, and he and the Broncos got a reminder when Weddle punched the football from Sanders' grasp at the Denver 37-yard-line 5:34 into the fourth quarter.

That's where the teamwork part comes in. Wes Welker was on Sanders' side of the field. He hit fifth gear in a flash, and when San Diego defensive end Ricardo Mathews failed to corral the loose football, Welker was in position for the recovery.

"All I could do was get up and laugh," said Sanders. "I was just thankful for Wes, that was a great hustle play by him to recover that fumble because that could have been bad."

Check out the best shots from Thursday night's game between the Broncos and Chargers.

"I saw the guy (Weddle) kind of chasing him down, so you never know," Welker said.

But what Welker does know is awareness: you must watch everything and be engaged in the play, even when you're not the target. There will come a time when in some way, Sanders must pick up Welker.

And the fumble was a reminder of how far Sanders has to go. He's among the best, but he's imperfect. He's in "wide receiver heaven," but will work at a hellacious pace to improve -- starting next week, when he carries the green football given to players who fumble.

"All of them (teammates) walked up to me and said, 'Well, we know who is going to have the green football next week,'" said Sanders. "Obviously, I need it, but it's no big deal it's only going to make me better."

And if he's better, the receivers are better, the offense is better, and the team has a better chance of taking the step it failed to make last year. No thoroughbred wins all its races. But Sanders fits in well because, like Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, he's capable of sprinting past everyone to hit the finish line -- or goal line -- first.

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