DENVER --** Through three weeks, Peyton Manning had found Emmanuel Sanders 32 times for 430 yards, but somehow, no touchdowns.
In the last five days, Sanders has been on the receiving end of four scores from Manning, more than a third of his prior career total (11).
"I know he's been – you know, he's wanted to get into the end zone these past few games," Manning said after the game. "Scored last week and then catching three tonight, it's a real credit to him."
We've seen this touchdowns-in-bunches movie before.
In 2012, Demaryius Thomas went seven contests with just two scores before snagging four over the next three games, while Eric Decker picked up seven TDs in a five-game span and five in a different three-game span. Last year, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker totaled 12 and 10 touchdowns respectively, but each picked up their eighth touchdown by Week 7. Meanwhile, Decker sat on three TDs through 11 games before grabbing eight in the final five weeks.
This year, Julius Thomas rode the touchdown train for five games (nine scores), Demaryius Thomas climbed aboard in Weeks 5-7 (five scores) and now it seems to be Sanders' turn.
"Every week, we don't know where the ball is going to," Sanders said following his career game. "The defense really dicates that, and what Peyton is seeing. Tonight was just my night."
"I feel like on any given night it could be anybody's night," Manning said.
Together, Manning and Sanders couldn't have described more perfectly how this well-oiled offense operates: By letting the defense dicate which dangerous target deserves the least of its attention and then pouncing on the mismatches that are created.
Sure, having what's almost an embarrassment of riches of weapons on offense certainly helps that gameplan go. But it's important to remember that just getting it off the ground requires a tremendous ability to process looks and information. As we've known for some time now, there's no quarterback that can do so more effectively than No. 18.
"There's certain plays that are sort of matchup type plays, where you're counting on making a good throw if there's a good route," Manning said. "Then there's certain plays that are scheme plays, where you're scheming to get the guy open. So certainly I was looking for matchups and I think we do a good job with moving guys all around. Emmanuel, Demaryius, Julius and Wes probably all lined up in four different positions tonight. That's what we're trying to do is create those matchups."
The other side of the streaky coin is that some players have stretches with just modest production. The player who best fits in that category so far is Wes Welker, who has 19 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown through four games in 2014. But despite the 11-year veteran's production being less than we're used to seeing from him, it demonstrates the respect defenses are paying to the Broncos' slot machine, who Manning emphasized is still "more than a security blanket."
"I feel like he is a great threat out there and I'm sure defenses would tell you that," Manning said of Welker. "He's had a great attitude. I'm not speaking for him but I'm sure he wants more catches and to be more involved, but it's just the way the ball works sometimes."
If you scanned the box score for Welker's two catches for five yards, you might quickly write off his impact in the big Thursday night win, especially on a night when the Broncos' newer free agent acquisition stole the show. But for the second time in three weeks, Welker came up with crucial plays down the stretch with the Broncos trying to kill the clock.
In Week 6 against the Jets, facing third-and-6 with 2:07 left, Welker picked up eight yards, letting Denver bring the clock down to a minute and forcing the Jets to use their last timeout before punting.
Check out the best shots from Thursday night's game between the Broncos and Chargers.
Thursday night, he jumped on a Sanders fumble on the first offensive play after the Chargers trimmed the Broncos' lead to 14 with 9:31 remaining, helping Denver keep possession for three and a half more minutes. A series later, on third-and-4 from the Denver 10 with 3:29 remaining, Manning squeezed a throw to the veteran between two defenders and Welker hung on for the big conversion. By the time the Chargers got the ball back -- now out of timeouts -- 18 seconds were left on the clock and the Broncos' two-touchdown lead was way out of reach.
"I thought Welker's third down catch might have been the biggest play of the game," Manning said. "...Give credit to him: On that third down, he ran a great route. It was a great adjustment. Third-and-4, it was kind planned for an out route. Wes snapped it inside. I believe they were looking to have some type of double coverage, but he was so quick with his adjustment and I was able to bang it in there and got that third-down conversion."
"I give credit to him for staying in the game and not feeling like, 'Hey it's not coming to me.' He was into the game and like I said, that was probably a critical play of the game in my opinion."
Welker's timely plays are certainly a tribute to his maintained focus amid some quiet stretches. At the same time, that focus is a credit to his quarterback, whose commitment to hitting the open man demands the best from his weapons on every play.
"I think that's the reason that those guys are playing so well, because they're all running full speed routes because they know the ball might come to them," Manning said. "We do a good job spending the ball around, moving guys around, trying to create different matchups. We're trying to get everybody involved."
Sanders was the primary beneficiary on Thursday night, and certainly could be for the next few games. But maybe it'll be Demaryius Thomas. Or Julius Thomas. Or perhaps Welker.
"It could be his day next Sunday against New England," Manning said.
It would undoubtedly be poetic for Welker to kickoff a 2014 hot streak against his old team and in front of his old fans in Foxborough. But we can be sure of one thing: Manning won't force it.