DENVER —** Sunday night after Peyton Manning tossed his 509th career touchdown, thereby breaking the record for career passing touchdowns, Manning found himself on the other side of the dynamic that's been such a success for him.
The receivers decided to celebrate the moment by taking their turn passing the ball around to one another with Manning as the unfortunate would-be defender trying to get the ball in a game of keep-away.
Naturally it was a good-natured joke (and one that Manning apparently planned, according to Demaryius Thomas), but the sharing element was certainly no issue whatsoever for the offense against the 49ers.
In a battle of two behemoths—a fourth-ranked Broncos defense that averaged about 300 yards allowed coming into this game, and a second-ranked 49ers defense that only allowed a little over 200 yards per game—the Broncos ended up stretching San Francisco's defense well beyond their comfort zone.
With an offense eager to spread the ball around, two Broncos found the end zone for the first time this season.
Emmanuel Sanders' efforts have been well-documented to this point. Questions circulated before the season began about how quickly he would adapt to the offense after he and Manning didn't connect in the first two preseason games. These concerns dissipated quickly when Sanders reeled off three straight 100-yard games. But one question still remained even after the strong performances: When would he finally get a touchdown?
No other player in the top-40 in receiving yards this season had yet to catch a touchdown, and there Sanders was plodding along among the top 10 in the category. You'd hesitate to call it a drought because of how well he was playing, but it was a steady rain without the spontaneous clap of thunder and flash of lightning.
Finally he broke through on Sunday. With the Broncos knocking on the door, Sanders ran a drag route over the middle and his defender tripped and fell. Manning spotted the open Sanders and the two connected to put the Broncos up 7-0.
"It felt good to finally get in the end zone. Today was definitely a special day," Sanders said. "Obviously, Peyton broke the record. I ended up catching my first touchdown as a Bronco. So I'm excited."
If you came into the game thinking the Broncos' passing offense facing the 49ers' passing defense would be one of those unstoppable force vs. immovable object matchups, San Francisco's banged-up defense looked much more like a movable object against the Broncos, who struck the Niners with every weapon they had. Demaryius Thomas once again looked dominant with 171 yards and two touchdowns; Wes Welker had 50 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown; Sanders added his 41 yards and a touchdown; and Julius Thomas and Ronnie Hillman each caught four balls for 56 total receiving yards, combined.
The balance also extended to the rushing game, where Hillman picked up 74 yards and two touchdowns. It was his first score of the season, too, and later, also he got his second.
The first was a 37-yard run, where he broke through the line into the second level, and then cut back toward his right, adding a burst of speed to outrun the defense to the goal line. "It was an inside zone," Hillman said. "I just cut back to the backside gap, and it was there. I just used my speed to get it to the end zone."
"I think Ronnie has done a great job, as have all the backs," Manning said. "Guys up front are doing a good job and that's really helping us. I think it's helping [Offensive Coordinator] Adam [Gase] calling plays. We have a good balance with the run and the pass and the play-action, so hopefully we can keep that up."
Hillman's versatility has shined as of late, and his ability to elude pursuing defenders or bounce off them has given the Broncos some of their most efficient running games recently. He's definitely found his footing and stepped up in the role that's fallen into his hands with Montee Ball's groin injury.
"Once you start getting in there and you start getting a role and getting comfortable with everything, you kind of get in a rhythm. Every running back needs that rhythm," Hillman said. "I'm starting to get a rhythm, and it's starting to pay off a little bit."
Everyone's rhythm after the game was already preparing for a hiccup with the Thursday night game adding a hitch to the normal schedule, but that didn't mean they wouldn't enjoy the win. However, more than a few of the players in the locker room knew they'd have to shift gears quickly to focus on preparing for Thursday's game against the Chargers.
"We'll get our guys refreshed," Head Coach John Fox said. "They'll enjoy this tonight, hopefully get some sleep, be back in tomorrow, get them flushed and ready. It is a quick turnaround, but one I think we're ready for. We'll enjoy this one tonight."