ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton powered up and snatched a game-winning touchdown Sunday over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, it showed the former second-round pick doesn't just have his football groove back -- he's learned a few new steps.
It was his eighth touchdown catch of the season -- only Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill has more -- and Sutton is the first Bronco to reach the mark in a season since Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders had 12, 11 and nine, respectively, for the 2014 Broncos.
"He's playing outstanding,'' coach Sean Payton said Sunday coming off the Broncos' fourth straight win. "... He's got strong hands in traffic, there's a confidence level between he and [quarterback Russell Wilson]. He's a big target, he's a great teammate, this guy's something.''
The Broncos have shown definite growing pains in their first year under Payton's playbook. Even with the current win streak, they're still currently 15th in the league in scoring, 24th in passing yards per game, last in scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations and they have just one rushing touchdown. But Sutton's grab over Blackmon was another installment in his flourishing on-field chemistry with Wilson. Each of Sutton's touchdowns this season has come on a red zone play.
"Once I saw it coming to me, I was like I can't wait for this to come down,'' Sutton said. "I knew defenders were around me so I had to go make a play on it. Russ and I, we've found a way to get on the same page. ... I just try to be in his vision. We all have learned, once he starts to scramble, another play starts, try to find a void, an open hole, find that open hole and he usually sees it as well.''
His toes-down touchdown grab, with full body extension, against the Buffalo Bills in the Broncos' "Monday Night Football" six days prior also made the highlight rounds.
"He works so hard,'' Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. "He's one of the best 50-50 ball catchers that I've seen, that I've had the opportunity to play with -- it's more like 70-30 when the ball is thrown in his area. The way he's able to contort his body to catch, one hand, two hands, it's great, man.''
After 10 games, Sutton also leads the Broncos in catches (45) and receiving yards (499). He likely leads the team in times Wilson has thrown the in-case-of-emergency pass to him.
"This guy has been lights out every day," Wilson said. "His work ethic, his leadership, his dedication to the game."
It's why Sutton has not only harkened back to 2019 -- his lone Pro Bowl selection with 72 catches, 1,112 yards and six touchdowns -- but this time around he's doing it in games that suddenly may matter, a lot, for the Broncos.
The 2019 Broncos had to win four of their last five games of the season just to get to 7-9 and the team hasn't been to the playoffs since Super Bowl 50 to close out the 2015 season. The current Broncos have picked themselves up off the mat after a 1-5 start, that included the historical 50-point loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, and have clawed back to 5-5.
Sutton has a touchdown catch in seven of the last eight games, including the last five in a row. And he's shown the win-the-ball strength to go with elusiveness in his routes and body control to finish the catch. Things that didn't always seem to be there after he suffered a torn left ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season. Sutton had two touchdown catches in both of the 2021 and 2022 seasons in a routinely balky Broncos passing offense.
Some executives around the league used the word "sluggish'' to describe his play last season. A combination of mismatched personnel on offense, coaching changes and a turnstile at quarterback had seen Sutton, over the last two seasons especially, not turn enough of his targets into catches.
In 2021 he turned 59% of his targets into catches and 58.7% last season. Sutton was so "aggravated at the same results'' it spurred him to change almost everything about his offseason regimen last spring and summer, including his workouts and diet. The Broncos haven't always found the explosive component in how Payton calls the game each week, but Sutton has turned 72.6% of his targets into catches and the touchdowns have followed.
Wilson has targeted him 62 times this season, 12 more than the next wide receiver (Jerry Jeudy).
"With these wins, I want to just keep stacking [them],'' Sutton said. "One catch, one game to the next. I do feel like everything is ahead of us right now. We got back into this season, we just kept at it. That's what I want to do.''