DENVER —** With the starters' preseason time quickly dwindling, Emmanuel Sanders could have used just one catch from Peyton Manning before the regular season gets underway.
But he couldn't get just one catch. Instead, he got five.
The Manning-to-Sanders connection was the big story Saturday night as they turned a 7-3 deficit into 17-7 lead in little over a minute with two long touchdown strikes.
After failing to connect in the first week of preseason, Sanders was sidelined with a nagging quad problem and he wasn't able to fully participate in practice until Thursday before playing in the game against Houston.
"It was good to get Emmanuel out there," Manning said after the game. "I think you want to complete some passes to a first-year receiver in this offense going into the season opener. Obviously being able to complete some passes to him early and then get the two touchdowns to him, it certainly makes me feel a lot better going into the opener, as opposed to before."
Browse through photos of the first half from the Broncos' preseason game against the Texans.
It wasn't the smoothest of sailing in the first few drives, however. Their first drive stalled and they had to settle for a field goal, and the ones that followed were no better.
"We had a couple possessions where we didn't get anything going," Manning said. "I made a bad throw and bad decision on the turnover. I thought we had a couple good drives and ended up with a field goal and had a missed field goal, as well."
The aforementioned turnover was an interception on a ball intended for Sanders. The play would set up the Texans for a touchdown drive that ultimately hinged on a fourth-down conversion in the red zone.
"Of course you never like to turn it over, but I think you like to see how you respond after that. I thought we responded with a good drive after the turnover, ended up missing the field goal, but it was a good drive to get down there. To get two two-minute drills, we were thinking one touchdown but to get two [scores] out of it, I thought was good" Manning said.
"I was proud of the way we responded through some not-ideal drives, and I think that was actually better than going out and being three-for-three and nothing really going wrong. I thought we saw a lot this preseason — different looks, different scenarios, different situations — I thought that was good."
After the offense's next trip ended with a missed field goal, the Broncos would get the ball back with 1:41 left on the clock before halftime.
It began from their own 7-yard line with an Andre Caldwell hook route that got them eight yards amid pressure up front from Houston's front line. The next pass fell incomplete but a pass interference call on Texans cornerback Brandon Harris gave them 18 yards.
The next play, a 67-yard bomb from Manning to Sanders streaking from the right side of the field toward the middle of the field gave the Broncos a jolt they needed.
"He ran a good route," Manning said. "He got on top of the cornerback and then over the top of the safety. He has that type of speed. You just throw it as far as you can and it's hard to out-throw that guy."
As we saw, Sanders' quick strides help Denver's offense strike when it needs a score on the double.
And it really was on the double. After the defense forced Houston into a three-and-out, the Broncos marched up the field yet again and caught lightning in a bottle with a second touchdown pass to Sanders.
The 29-yard diving catch was set up by two Wes Welker receptions, the latter of which received a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness by D.J. Swearinger for a hit to Welker's head on a crossing route.
"He got inside of the cornerback and then got outside away from the safety and made a great extended catch. A lot of times that ball comes out when it hits the ground. The fact that he kept it in his possession, I thought was a pretty good play by him," Manning said.
By getting more familiar with Sanders, perhaps Manning has found a new dependable target down the field ready from Week 1. The offense had some miscues here and there during Saturday's game, but still managed to escape with a lead at halftime.
"I thought it was good that we kind of went through some of that in this game. I think part of me wants to go three drives, three touchdowns and get out perfect, but in some ways maybe it's a good thing that we had a three-and-out there," Manning said.