A future Hall of Fame quarterback and a neophyte tight end connected not once, but twice to put the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Just don’t expect Peyton to start taking it easy on (bleeping) Julius anytime soon
DENVER — As it goes with most Peyton Manning feats, true appreciation lies in the details.
On Sunday, the Broncos quarterback needed a pair of first downs to keep the clock running late in the fourth quarter and advance to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 2009. So which receiver did he turn to after the Chargers had scored 10 points in less than two minutes to make it a one-score game with 3:53 left to play?
Manning didn’t go to former All-Pro Wes Welker, nor did he find Demaryius Thomas, Manning’s favorite target since the QB arrived in the Mile High City a year ago. For the two biggest throws of Denver’s 2013 season, Manning turned to tight end Julius Thomas, a first-year starter, a former college basketball player, the guy who learned how to catch a football just four years ago ... the same 25-year-old whose false start in the third quarter prompted Manning to yell “f------ Julius!” loud enough to be heard on the TV broadcast.
That transgression was forgiven on 3rd-and-17 with three minutes left to play, as the Broncos clung to a 24-17 lead from their own 20-yard line. Manning took the shotgun snap, surveyed the field, felt early pressure from Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram, and then fired the ball to Thomas, who dragged the tip of his right foot just inside the right sideline for a 21-yard reception.
Was Thomas the first option? Denver receivers know it’s useless and potentially distracting to pay attention to QB progressions and primary receivers. “We don’t really do it like that,” Thomas says. “Everybody’s a viable option with Peyton. It just happened to come to me that time. You never know if he’s looking people away, but he came to me and I was able to make a play.”
There was another still yet to be made.
Three plays later, Denver faced 3rd-and-6 at its own 45, just 12 seconds away from the two-minute warning. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase ran a familiar play: trips left, with Demaryius Thomas, Welker and Eric Decker lined up to the left side. Decker, tightest to the formation, cut to the sideline on a short out; Welker, in the slot, ran a skinny post; and Demaryius Thomas, split wide, streaked down the field. It’s a staple of the Broncos offense, but the ball never goes to Julius Thomas, who lined up on the right side by himself and ran a hook.
Never, that is, until it happened on Sunday night.
“That’s the first time I’ve caught that route on that play all season,” said Julius Thomas, who held onto the ball as two linebackers closed down on him like a vice. “I had never even been thrown to before on that play. That’s what Peyton does. He fits the ball in a tight spot, and I was able to make a play.”
Four plays later, Manning took a knee in victory formation. Game over.
Bring on New England. Bring on Tom Brady.
“Man, it’s been a wild ride for me,” says Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 who only played one year of football at Portland State. “Sometimes it surprises even me.”
The extraordinary dichotomy between Thomas, a neophyte who spent his first two NFL seasons catching passes from Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, and Manning, the son and older brother of an NFL quarterback, was typified by their fathers.
Archie Manning, slim and grey-haired, football royalty in New Orleans and beyond, quietly strolled through Denver’s postgame locker room with Peyton’s young son in tow; both were dressed in slacks and collared shirts. In the hallway outside stood Greg Thomas, a 6-foot-6 high school principal from California with bulging cheeks and a booming voice. He wore an authentic No. 80 orange jersey, signed by No. 80 himself. He was part of an entourage that included family, friends and a pair of unlikely guests—a young boy and a woman whom he met, respectively, at the airport and at a restaurant. They’d been lucky enough to run into Papa Thomas and get invited to the divisional playoff to meet a Pro Bowl tight end.
But why include strangers?
“To make a kid’s day,” Greg said.
Afterward, the 37-year-old Peyton Manning sounded like a kid who was thrilled to meet Thomas.
“Julius was huge all game. He’s been huge all season,” Manning said. “Those were two huge plays. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice ... to me, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of football. You put that work in off to the side, after practice. It pays off in a game, and it really makes you feel like it was worth it.”
Manning and Brady will battle head-to-head next weekend in Denver for the 15th time—Brady has a 10-4 advantage, including a 2-1 record in the postseason—but on Sunday night Manning said he was looking no further down the road than to the next Bud Light he could get his hands on. He gave credit to the “big-time” play-calling by Gase, but it was Manning who bailed out the Broncos’ defense, which got burnt by Chargers rookie wideout Keenan Allen for 142 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Denver’s superb Cover 2 execution and man coverage broke down as Denver’s pass rush fatigued and cornerback Quentin Jammer found himself on the losing end of Allen’s biggest plays.
“It was a lack of discipline on our part,” said safety Duke Ihenacho. “Everybody was trying to make a play and be the hero who won the game.”
But of course, it would’ve been Manning who stumbled yet again in the playoffs had the Broncos lost. Few would have overlooked his interception at the end of the second quarter, a pass that bounced off Decker’s chest in the end zone. The billing on this divisional matchup was a classic Western shootout, and just two touchdowns and 230 passing yards from Manning wouldn’t have been good enough. But he’s heard that before, having played with middling to poor defenses his whole career—hence Brady’s 10-4 record against him, not to mention Brady’s five Super Bowl appearances to Manning’s two.
Maybe that’s why Manning loses his cool over false starts and why he spends so much extra time bringing along young players like Julius Thomas. If no lead is safe, you might feel as though you're always playing from behind.