John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Manning and the ‘Other’ Thomas Form an Unlikely Duo to Propel Denver

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

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

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.”

manning-inline800

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.”

Two of a kind

The little things define Peyton Manning and Tom Brady’s greatness. Andy Benoit shows how the future Hall of Famers make extraordinary plays look routine. FULL STORY

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.

mmqb-end-slug-square

30 comments
BarrySoetoro
BarrySoetoro

Damn, Peter finally gets it in the last 2 paragraphs. Peyton has always had to save the defense,special teams,coaches,and Brady has been on the best coached teams in the NFL.

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

The only people who would have faulted Manning for 'his' interception, in the 2nd quarter no less, are haters. Decker screwed up large 3 times that game - anyone who understands football would pin the loss on him. 

Irony
Irony

The late game scoring wasn't that the defense got fatigued at the end of the game. It was because the outstanding corner Chris Harris tore his ACL and was replaced by an aging safety who was playing out of position and over his head.

JoJo8754
JoJo8754

The consensus is that Manning was not the one to curse out Thomas.

ML1
ML1

I think he swore at Thomas to make everyone THINK he was pissed off at him but in reality it was all acting...he cursed at him in order to setup these plays later in the game!!!

TarugoKing
TarugoKing

Manning > Chuck Norris.....PERIOD!!!!!

TheHip1
TheHip1

Go Viks! Nice to see Julius make plays and have a great season as he is doing. Can't say I like Denver at all but as fellow PSU Alum gotta root for JT!

CMFJ
CMFJ

First, good thing Denver isn't Washington.  Manning and Thomas would have to be explaining why their families were in the locker room after the game.


Second, nice article on Thomas, who has certainly earned some press this year.  He may not have the stats of some of the other top TEs, but he certainly is a matchup problem for safeties and LBs.  As the article emphasizes, Manning clearly has as much faith in him as the 3 WRs.  I think he will be key weapon against NE.

JeremyMoses
JeremyMoses

[Manning has] "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."

Thanks for that. It's a blindingly obvious point, but Klemco is the first sportswriter I've ever read who acknowledged it. I would add that Manning has also had far worse coaching than Brady-- specifically, Tony Dungy's annual ruinous "rest the starters" strategy. The NFL has a very macho "no excuses" culture, but that often seems to translate into pretending that differences in players' external circumstances simply do not exist. Everyone seems to agree that football is the ultimate team sport-- except when it comes to a high profile quarterback being on a losing team in the playoffs. Then, the quarterback "lost the game"-- as if the rest of the team's proficiency or lack thereof had nothing to do with it.  

mattfisch
mattfisch

"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 2006."

Peyton Manning made the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and went to the Super Bowl that year as well.

robcbishop
robcbishop

It was actually left guard Zane Beadles who shouted out "(Flipping) Julius!" after the false start. You can see his head jerk during the replay as he says it. Manning just gave him that look that said it all.

HankJohnson
HankJohnson

Great article...sums up the definitive moment of the game.  Keep up the good work Klemko.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Here's the text "...said Julius Thomas, who held onto the ball as two linebackers closed down on him like a vice....'.He [Manning] fits the ball in a tight spot, and I was able to make a play'".  Klemko is responsible for both the text and the quote because HE SELECTED THEM FOR THIS ARTICLE.   San Diego was down two DBs to injury, and THE GUY WAS WIDE OPEN due to coverage mixups.  Puffing up Manning & Thomas for this play is just another example of lousy writing.  Any decent QB can find a wide open receiver.  Pick something more difficult to understand, something non-obvious, rather than wasting space on drivel.  You're writing on the premier website for the NFL, write like you belong here.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

Great article! I was wondering who delivered the F bomb, and your article provided great insight into Thomas, his family, Manning and how he leads the Broncos, and how the vast majority of fans would have summarized the game had the collapse of the defense once more cost the the victory. The way Manning and the Broncos handle their progressions and the focus each of the receivers need on every play is quite a telling testimonial on the quality of play required to succeed in the NFL.

This is one of the best football articles I have read all season.

JeremyMoses
JeremyMoses

@Joebuckster You're absolutely correct that it would seem silly to blame a quarterback for an interception that wasn't really his fault. But I think that NFL coverage has a lot to do with the narratives that sportswriters create: Tom Brady is the comeback hero, able to work magic to win almost any game; Peyton Manning is the consummate professional who masters the game with an almost mathematical genius, but who can't win the big one (except when he did). After that, fans tend to adopt those narratives. The problem is that sometimes certain aspects of a game are over-emphasized and others are ignored, in order to fit the narratives that sportswriters already have in their heads: For example, when Manning wins big, it's just another example of his dominance (even if his opponent was weak, and most quarterbacks would have won big in that situation); when the Patriots come from behind in the fourth quarter to win, it's just another example of the Brady magic (even if the other team shot themselves in the foot and essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory). If the Broncos had lost, I believe that it would have been played as another example of what we already "knew"-- that Manning can't win in the playoffs (because of course quarterbacks are solely responsible for their teams' fortunes). It's disheartening to me to see accomplished sportswriters who should know better fall into these patterns. 

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

@Irony Don't expect to get anything but pre-digested 'stories' from MMQB - they don't actually perceive anything but the surface optics of a football game. Nice post... 

Orange Crush
Orange Crush

@CMFJ Wrong and wrong. First, all teams allow family members in the locker room after the game. The difference is that their family members are not trying to become a distraction to the football team by telling the coaches and FO how to do their jobs. 

Second, Thomas had the 3rd most receiving TD's in the league by TE's and the 8th most yards. I'd say those stats put him right near the top. BB is a great game planner and I expect him to try to come up with something to stop him. It is a pick your poison with this offense though because there are just so many weapons he can hurt you with. Should be a great game!!

Paul Sousa
Paul Sousa

@JeremyMoses I guess you missed NBC's breakdown before the NE-Denver regular season game.  Manning has played with, statistically, more top rated defenses and running games than Brady and it was not even close  

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

@robcbishop Beadles should talk - he's the weak link getting blown up all the time on the o-line...

CMFJ
CMFJ

@westcoastbias 


"THE GUY WAS WIDE OPEN."


If you are going to call out a writer for poor work, you should try to actually know what was written about.  Way to embarrass yourself.  

badflounder
badflounder

@westcoastbias Denver also lost their BEST CB in Harris with an ACL injury.  That was the only reason Allen suddenly got open; but it is what it is....injuries are part of the game.  You need to bring premier knowledge of the game if you are going to make intelligent comments about it.

jackbedell
jackbedell

@westcoastbias The quote you reference is referring to the second catch by Thomas, which was in between defenders and in a tight spot in the coverage. You are reading a premiere website; read like you belong here.

RAR
RAR

@BillRobinsonI thought it was big Phil Rivers who dropped that F bomb ;)  BTW, if you've ever heard Julius give an interview, you'd find that he's probably the most articulate player on the Broncos. Well, after PFM, of course...

JeremyMoses
JeremyMoses

@Paul Sousa@JeremyMosesI'm similarly confused. I looked up the numbers and did the math. Klemco is incorrect that Manning has played with poor defenses for his whole career-- for example, according to pro-football-reference.com, his defense was a surprising number 1 in 2007, and number 4 last year (in points allowed). But overall, it's not close. Manning's defenses have averaged about number 15 in the league; Brady's, about 8. This year, the Broncos' defense was number 22 in points allowed, and the Patriots' defense was number 10.

ackadamius
ackadamius

@Paul Sousa @JeremyMoses I'm not sure how they come up with that.  By my count:


Top 10 Defenses since 2002:  Brady=5; Manning=3

Top 10 Def. PPG since 2002:  Brady=9; Manning=6

Top 10 Rush Yards since 2002:  Brady=5; Manning=0

Top 10 Rush YPA since 2002: Brady=3; Manning=0


It's pretty easy stuff to look up.  I didn't see what you are referring to on NBC but they must be using different categories to come to their conclusions.

Orange Crush
Orange Crush

@JeremyMoses @Paul Sousa This is going to be such a long week of this tiring debate. For this reason Sunday can not come fast enough. It is a pointless exercise. They are 2 of the best to play the game and this should be a good one.

Newsletter