ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **Throughout his career, Demaryius Thomas has managed to save some of his best football for the postseason.
The wide receiver entered Sunday's AFC Championship Game with 21 career postseason receptions for 388 yards and three touchdowns in four games. In short, 'playoffs time' has meant 'DT time' during the Broncos' postseason campaigns over the last three seasons.
So, when Thomas dropped a pass from quarterback Peyton Manning in the first half of Sunday's game against the Patriots, there was hardly cause for concern about how Thomas would respond.
"The ball just snuck up on me," Thomas recalled. "But I told myself before the game I wouldn't drop any balls."
Give him a mulligan for the early drop, because the wide receiver otherwise held up his end of that pregame promise.
Thomas caught seven passes for a game-high 134 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos' 26-16 win over the Patriots – playing a key role in a Denver offense that rolled up 507 yards for the game.
And, of course, Thomas notched the first Super Bowl appearance of his career – Broncos' first Super Bowl appearance since January 31, 1999, when he was just 11 years old.
"I'm just so happy," Thomas said. "It's something that everybody wants to do as a football player – the main goal is to make the Super Bowl of course but we want to win it, too. I'm just lost for words. I'm so happy. I'm in a great spot right now, I'm glad to be a Bronco." Earning a trip to the Super Bowl wasn't the only thing that left Thomas searching for words, however. After Manning turned in another performance for the books – completing 32-of-43 passes for 400 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 3-yard strike to Thomas in the third quarter that gave the Broncos a 20-3 lead – his wide receiver ran out descriptive terms for the quarterback's play.
"There's not much you can say. Peyton is Peyton," Thomas said. "He goes out and put up numbers, here and there, but I really don't know what to say but he did a great job today."
A win to celebrate and relish, to be sure, but also one that Thomas won't hang his hat on with an even-bigger game now on the horizon.
"I turn the page when we go in to go over whoever we play," Thomas said.
After all the tireless work, all the determination, the road has culminated with this: a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII and a chance to play for a world championship. And that's an opportunity that Thomas and his teammates won't take for granted.
"Our drive was – OTAs, minicamp – and said that this was what we wanted to do and it's what we've done so far," Thomas said. "Now we just have to try to get the win."
Not Your Average Rookie Season
When Montee Ball last set foot in MetLife Stadium, he was a fresh-faced rookie playing just his second-ever NFL regular-season contest.
Technically speaking, Ball still is a rookie – and that game, a 41-23 Broncos win over the Giants in Week 2, was just a smidgen over four months ago. But from Ball's perspective?
"Oh, man. It seems like it was like last year," Ball said. "Well, forever ago. Because technically it was last year."
The strides he's taken on the field would certainly indicate that.
In Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Ball carried the ball 12 times for 43 yards and caught three passes for 13 yards. With starting running back Knowshon Moreno sidelined with an injury late in the game, Ball picked up 16 yards on the Broncos' final drive – including a crucial 5-yard run on fourth-and-2 – to help Denver put the game away.
That performance came on the heels of 10-carry, 52-yard showing against the Chargers in the AFC Divisional Round – not to mention a stretch during the Broncos' final five games of the regular season where Ball gained 297 yards and averaged 6.6 yards-per-carry.
It was all a far cry from that Week 2 game, where Ball carried 12 times for 14 yards and lost a fumble on the Broncos' opening drive.
"It felt like forever ago, that game – I really can't remember much about it just because everything is so fast in the NFL," he said. "You're onto the next week, onto the next team."
Ball finished his rookie regular-season campaign with 559 rushing yards and four touchdowns – with much of that coming in the most crucial stretch of the Broncos' season.
"I feel like for myself, I've made great strides and I'm kind of on track at the right time," Ball said.
Now, his rookie season will culminate in a place that every player in the NFL aims for: the Super Bowl.
"It's surreal," he said.
Earning Their Way Here
Eric Decker's emotions swelled in the locker room as he reflected on the Broncos' path to Super Bowl XLVIII – and with good reason.
There's no other way to put it: this team has persevered through quite a lot.
"You know, it's a moment that I'll cherish forever," the wide receiver said. "What we've been through, throughout the year, how we finished last year – everybody deserves to be at this point and I think it just shows how we stuck together and we finished."
From losing a handful of key players due to injuries to Head Coach John Fox's midseason heart scare, which required heart valve surgery and caused Fox to miss four games, the Broncos have simply kept playing and kept working.
"These guys – starting with our head coach, he's done a great job of making us understand the moments and taking advantage of them," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I think with his absence and coming back we just found a way to win and keep going and that really (is a) credit to him because he made sure that we're prepared for things like that."
Fox's perspective on the matter – delivering a postgame press conference after the AFC Championship Game less than three months after undergoing heart surgery – truly spoke volumes.
"Just standing here feels pretty good, because I almost wasn't," Fox said
It's been a road through adversity that has been felt throughout the entire team – whether it has been an injury-ravaged defense that held the Patriots and Chargers to 16 and 17 points respectively in the playoffs, or, as Manning pointed out, an offensive line that has jelled despite significant changes from the 2012 season.
"Those guys have been through—like you said—a great deal of adversity," Manning said. "They've overcome a lot of obstacles. I'm extremely proud of (center) Manny (Ramirez). I remember all offseason long, Manny was working center but he was probably the second-team center, and then we signed Dan Koppen so Manny found out then he was probably the third-team center. He has just continued to work."
"Really it's been a close-knit unit, and those guys played great today," Manning added. "I'm real proud of them."
Now, after walking the road that they have, the Broncos will take aim at overcoming one final obstacle: winning a world championship.
"There are only so many times in your life that God puts things in front of you and you want you to be able to take advantage of those things while they are here," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "We've been blessed to be put in this opportunity. A lot of guys had to step up, it took some pushing and some motivation, but our guys out here, we were ready to rumble for whatever. It's going to be a good game in the Super Bowl and you best believe we're going to put our best foot forward."