DENVER -- **As darkness fell over Sports Authority Field at Mile High and tension began to mount, the Broncos sought a playmaker on their final drive of an AFC Divisional Round contest that suddenly had narrowed to a one-score game.
Julius Thomas answered the call with open arms – and sure hands.
Thomas reeled in a pair of crucial third-down receptions on the Broncos' final drive of their 24-17 win over the Chargers on Sunday, helping keep Denver's offense on the field for the game's final 3:51 and ultimately allowing the Broncos to run out the clock on San Diego's hopes for a comeback.
With the Chargers just one third-down stop away from getting the ball back for a potential game-tying drive, quarterback Peyton Manning twice called Thomas' number.
And on an afternoon of ups-and-downs for the tight end, Thomas saved his best for last, reeling in catches on third-and-17 and third-and-6 to help the Broncos put away the Chargers.
"Those were huge," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "Huge."
That would hardly be an overstatement, especially when describing the first of Thomas' catches, when he reeled in an arching spiral from Manning with the Broncos pinned in a third-and-17 situation at their own 20-yard line.
"Third-and-17, the best way to convert those is don't get in them," Manning said.
But with the game on the line on Sunday, the Broncos found a way. Manning stepped up in the pocket with the Chargers' pass rush swirling around him and lofted a ball to the sideline, where Thomas twisted and hauled in the pass – dragging his feet just inches in bounds to preserve the 21-yard reception and allow the Broncos to move the chains.
"Ah, man – third-and-17 is a tough position to put yourself in as a team, but I came off the ball and had a good look," Thomas said. "Peyton threw a great pass and I was able to get both feet in on the sideline and really give us an opportunity to end the game with the offense on the field."
"It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game," Manning said. "It certainly came at a good time. (Offensive Coordinator) Adam (Gase) dialed it up, it was something we worked on and it was nice we were able to execute."
Three plays later, and the Broncos again found themselves in a similar situation – this time, third-and-6.
Once again, it was 18 to 80, as Manning found Thomas over the middle for a 9-yard conversion that forced the Chargers to use their final timeout with 2:02 remaining.
From there, the Broncos took things into their own control, picking up one final first down to put the game away without ever conceding a final opportunity to the Chargers offense – something that Thomas pointed out was critical to preserving a win in the game's closing moments.
"We didn't want to have to punt the ball back and give them an opportunity," Thomas said. "We knew that we needed to go out there and take care of what we needed to do so that we could end the game in a victory formation. There is no better feeling for an offense or for a team to go out there and kneel to win the game."
For Thomas, it also provided decisive closure for a day that also had been at times forgettable.
Though he caught six passes for 76 yards, Thomas also had a key drop earlier in the game and lost a fumble in Chargers' territory in the second quarter that ended a potential scoring drive.
It was the way that he responded in the face of adversity, however, that caught his teammates' attention.
"Those kinds of things happen throughout the game," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "You can't be perfect all the time and Julius is the kind of guy that forgets those kinds of things – moves on after that play whatever the play is and just focuses on the next play. He did a good job of just erasing that out of his mind and going out there and playing football."
And when it mattered most, Thomas rose to the occasion.
"It wasn't a perfect game by anybody on our team, and I'm just really proud of him, the way -- you know, we talked all week about who plays the hardest, the longest," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "When we had to make plays at the end, Julius was in there, and he did a heck of a job making them."
"Bottom line, he bounced back," defensive end Shaun Phillips added.
And, in bouncing back, he helped ensure that his team plays on for at least one more week – this time, with an AFC championship and a trip to Super Bowl on the line.
"Julius was huge all game," Manning said. "He's been huge all season."
"Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes – after practice, in-practice," he added. "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."