Julius Thomas' pro playoff debut was an exercise in dichotomy.
"F***ing Julius!", Peyton Manning audibly exclaimed, a knee-jerk reaction to Thomas' false start penalty in the third quarter.
The first-year starter was having a rough game, with a fumble in the first half, a crucial dropped pass in the second, and now this false start. The Broncos were up by 17 points in the third quarter, so the repercussions of his missteps seemed minor. But soon, the Chargers would come storming back. Soon, Denver would need to answer San Diego's rally.
And when the Broncos needed a Broncos receiver to make plays, with the game on the line, Julius Thomas was ready.
Thirty minutes after Peyton's reaction to Thomas' false start was caught on CBS cameras, there was a similar exclamation heard around Denver. The words were the same; the source and inflection were completely changed.
"F***ING JULIUS!", Broncos Country collectively, elatedly roared. The tight end had just converted two third downs late in the contest that kept the Chargers' offense off the field. The tight end had effectively won the Broncos the game.
Broncos 24, Chargers 17
Broncos 24, Chargers 17
The importance of those plays was magnified in the context of the year before. In the Broncos' 2013 divisional round loss to Baltimore, Denver's situation was identical: four minutes to close the game, up a touchdown, with the football in hand. Back then, the Broncos chose to run it six straight times. Even on 3rd and 6, the Broncos chose to run it, to play it safe, valuing the elimination of game clock over a risky throw for a first down.
Back then, the Broncos failed to convert. They gave the Ravens the ball back. A Jacoby Jones sprint past Rahim Moore later, the Broncos found themselves in overtime, and ultimately eliminated from the playoffs.
There would be no such play calls on 3rd and 6 this time.
"Those were two huge plays," a relieved Peyton Manning said after the game. "I really loved Adam (Gase)'s aggressive calls."
The first, on 3rd and 17, was a demonstration of Thomas' talent. With pressure coming from San Diego's Melvin Ingram, Manning was forced to step forward and throw, perhaps more quickly than he would have liked. He found the wide open Thomas, but the ball was thrown high. Thomas was able to grab the nearly-doomed throw and drag his right foot in-bounds.
21 yards. First down. Season continues.
Recap and more
Recap and more
The second, on 3rd and 6, was a demonstration of Thomas' readiness. The Broncos lined up in trips left - Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker all to Manning's left, Julius Thomas alone to his right, with Manning in the shotgun. Instead of his usual target - one of his three receivers lined up to his left - Manning, for the first time all season, targeted Julius Thomas on that play. With linebackers closing in, Thomas held on.
Nine yards. First down. Season continues.
"That's the first time I've caught that route on that play all season," Julius Thomas told MMQB's Robert Klemko. "I had never even been thrown to before on that play."
Manning's versatility and Thomas' execution means that the Broncos will live on to play another game. They will now host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. With Tom Brady on the opposing offense making plays, Manning will surely be calling on Julius Thomas again.
"Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes - after practice, in practice," Manning continued. "To me, that is one of the most rewarding parts of football. When you put that work in off to the side or after practice and it pays off in a game, it really makes it feel like it was worth it. Those two plays specifically were certainly worth the hard work."
Those two plays specifically saved Denver's season.