The Denver Broncos are rolling. Peyton Manning and Co. captured their fourth straight win Thursday night, dropping AFC West rival San Diego, 35-21 to take full control of first place. The Chargers have now lost two in a row, opening a gap in the West standings for the first time this season.
Three thoughts on the Broncos' victory:
1. The Broncos stole Emmanuel Sanders. They won't be as lucky with Demaryius Thomas
Eric Decker walked away this past offseason to sign a contract worth $7.25 million per year in New York. Eventually, the Broncos turned their attention to Emmanuel Sanders, who wound up with a three-year, $15 million deal.
If that looked like something of a bargain then, it's borderline thievery now. Sanders hauled in three TDs Thursday -- the first multi-touchdown game of his NFL career -- and now has 47 receptions on the season.
"Tonight was Emmanuel's night," Peyton Manning said on CBS' postgame coverage.
Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas posted his fourth consecutive game of 100-plus receiving yards, this time making eight grabs for 105 yards. This was his first time finishing without a touchdown in that stretch, during which Thomas has averaged 157.5 yards per contest. He still has six TDs on the year.
Oh right, and he's headed toward free agency after the year if the Broncos do not get him re-signed. Odds are, the two sides will find a way.
It's going to cost Denver a pretty penny, though. Thomas, who will turn 27 in December, has developed into not only Peyton Manning's favorite target but one of the top wide receivers in football, period. He's coming off back-to-back seasons topping 1,400 yards and is on pace to get there again.
Thomas has become unstoppable on the quick slants Denver loves to run (often with help from some interference from Wes Welker), and he consistently wins battles in the air.
Denver also has to decide if it wants to pay TE Julius Thomas, an emerging star and fellow potential free agent. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported earlier Thursday that the Broncos would wait until after the season to discuss a new contract with either Thomas.
When the time comes, Demaryius Thomas should push at least into the $10-12 million range, where the likes of Brandon Marshall, Dwayne Bowe and Percy Harvin all reside. Thomas has proven himself as valuable to his team as just about any receiver in football.
2. San Diego wore down Denver's defense ... but too late
The Thursday night turnaround is tough for any team, let alone one that played on the prior Sunday night as Denver did. Some fatigue is bound to set in along the way.
And that's certainly what appeared to happen up front for the Broncos defense, whose pass rush seemed to run out of juice in the second half.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, by the time that happened, they already were fighting a massive uphill battle. The third quarter could not have started much worse for San Diego than it did -- a Philip Rivers interception, a very short four-play drive and two Denver TDs. The Broncos led 28-7 after that flurry, forcing San Diego to abandon its ineffective run game.
Had the game been closer, the Chargers may have stuck with rookie RB Branden Oliver a little longer. His Cinderella story hit a bit of a speed bump: 12 carries for 13 yards, almost all in the first half.
San Diego could not move Denver's line off the ball early, nor could it contain Von Miller off the edge. The momentum shifted in the final quarter or so, only after the game was all but out of reach.
3. No question now that Denver is the AFC's team to beat
There was little debate headed into Thursday, considering that the defending conference champs held first place in the AFC West, a 5-1 mark and an earlier win over Indianapolis.
This first head-to-head matchup against San Diego was the next key hurdle to clear. After all, the Chargers had been 5-1 themselves just five days ago. Now, following a quick two-game losing skid, they've drifted a game and a half back of Denver in the AFC West standings and must head to Miami next week.
Everyone knew all along that the Broncos would be able to put up points this season. What they hoped to prove in combination with that was that their defense could match Peyton Manning's aerial show.
The defense may not be on quite that level yet, but it's headed in the right direction. Not since that season-opening win over Indianapolis have the Broncos allowed more than 20 points in regulation (Seattle hit 26 with an OT touchdown).
Sure, Denver wore down a bit Thursday. Still, that worn-down D cemented the win on a Rahim Moore INT.
This is a pretty complete team.