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Julius Thomas is the Denver Broncos' key to victory over the Indianapolis Colts

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When it comes to the red zone, there is no question over how important tight end Julius Thomas is. And against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, the Denver Broncos cannot afford to take field goals over touchdowns.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

"Red Zone to Julius Thomas. Paging Julius Thomas to the Red Zone, please."

Whether the Denver Broncos bring back Julius Thomas in 2015 is irrelevant, because this 2014 season was built around him when it came to Peyton Manning and the red zone. The engine that drove that Ferrari blew a tire a little past the halfway point and the leagues best-scoring red zone offense tanked to mediocrity.

Manning's red zone efficiency has fallen off a cliff without Julius Thomas opening things up for the offense down by the goal line. Before Thomas injured his ankle, the Broncos were scoring touchdowns on 25% of their red zone plays compared to just 15% over the last eight games of the season.

In fact, his injury has cost the Broncos more than just red zone opportunities. His injury has had a huge impact on the scoring potential of the offense in general.

Split Expected Points PPG Turnovers/Gm 1st Downs/Gm
Weeks 1-10 (Thomas healthy) 9.1 31.7 0.9 20.6
Weeks 11-17 (Thomas hurting) 7.9 28.0 1.7 18.0
via Pro-Football-Reference.com

It's good he has finally gotten that ankle healthy again. Ankle injuries are the most annoying "minor" injuries to come back full strength from. It looks like he's finally getting there, though.

"I feel better today," Thomas responded to a question about his ankle on Monday, "Able to loosen things up a little bit and start to have a little more movement out there, so it’s definitely coming along."

This is good, because the things he does to generate scoring opportunities down in the red zone is going to be huge against the Indianapolis Colts. Whether it be one on one coverage against a cornerback like this red zone touchdown against the New England Patriots:

Or an inside shovel passes like this other one in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks:

Both teams are potential Super Bowl contenders, so I felt they were relevant to this conversation. I'm not even including the Week 1 domination of the Colts by Thomas to the tune of 7 catches for 104 yards and 3 touchdowns. That's a matchup nightmare the Broncos absolutely need in this game.

Prior to his injury, Julius Thomas received the second-most targets in the red zone to Demaryius Thomas. The result was both players getting touchdowns. Lots of them. Since his injury, however, the door is slamming shut on Demaryius Thomas who was only able to snare a single red zone catch out of 16 total targets since Week 13 compared to 23 red zone receptions out of 40 targets in Weeks 1-12. Those are some damning numbers and should prove to us all how important Julius Thomas is to this offense scheme in 2014.

So when you talk about x-factors, there is no bigger x-factor for me than a healthy and red zone beastly Julius Thomas in this game. If he is again a non-factor, then winning this game could become one of attrition where the whims of chance could come to haunt Broncos Country.