ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In Week 12, the Patriots had their dominant pass-catching tight end to draw coverage down the seam and create more open spaces for their other targets. The Broncos did not.
In that 34-31 New England win, Rob Gronkowski had one of his typical performances: seven catches, 90 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots averaged 6.11 yards per pass play and their offense scored nearly a point per minute of possession (0.997 points per 60 seconds).
The Broncos, meanwhile, didn't have Julius Thomas. He was out with an ankle injury, and their passing game struggled to its worst performance of the year.
There were other factors in the Broncos' loss and their below-average passing performance, chiefly the gale-force gusts that turned Gillette Stadium into a wind tunnel. But Thomas' presence down the seam and near the sideline was missed.
When the teams meet again nearly two months later, the team roles will be reversed. Denver will have Thomas, who led the team in receiving yardage and provided the 21-yard, third-and-17 reception late Sunday afternoon that helped clinch the 24-17 win over the Chargers. The Patriots will be without Gronkowski, and while their running game has picked up the slack, their passing game averages 13.2 percent fewer yards per play without Gronkowski than with him.
Such a profound impact from Gronkowski's presence could have been easily predicted six months ago. But the same could not be said of Thomas, who at that time was an intriguing prospect who looked poised to receive a long look at training camp, but had yet to prove his worth.
Thomas gives Peyton Manning another weapon from which to choose, and allows for five quality, game-breaking options when he drops back to pass. That was the case on the third-and-17 completion Sunday, when Thomas got wide open near the right sideline because the Chargers couldn't adequately account for him, wide receivers Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, and running back Knowshon Moreno coming out of the backfield.
"It's extremely tough for a defense to have every single person on offense covered each and every play," said Julius Thomas. "There's always going to be traffic, guys stumble up, get caught up in something and that gives our (quarter)back just a little bit of a throwing lane. He's going to look for the guy that is open and he's going to read the defense and that's really what allows him to distribute the ball so well."
It's not enough for a team to have a talented collection of targets. The quarterback in question must trust of them enough to where he simply throws to the open man, and doesn't have the possibility of failure entering his mind.
That has helped the entire offense, since Manning's ability to distribute the football in all directions shows confidence in each of them.
"Everybody knows that when we step out onto that field, it could be your opportunity to make a play," said Thomas. "You're trying to win every route. You may be running a route you've never caught; you ran it in practice, you ran it in practice.
"Like last week, its third-and-6 and you finally catch that hook route that you've been running for the last four months and haven't caught a ball on in a game," he continued. "You never know when it's going to be you and you have to be ready at all times. You never know when it's going to be you and you have to be ready at all times."
But for Thomas, being ready took something unusual, since his relatively limited background doesn't give him the same base level of experience that the other targets possess.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself that he hasn't played a ton of football," Manning said. "So for Julius to have the kind of season that he's had without having a lot of experience is really impressive."
And never was his progress more evident than on the game-sealing drive Sunday, where Thomas was targeted on consecutive third downs.
"Two critical situations -- probably the two biggest third downs of the game -- we went his way. So you can tell that (Offensive Coordinator) Adam (Gase) believes in him. You certainly know that I believe in him. He has answered the bell each week.
"I'm really proud of the way he's competed and worked. He's going to be an outstanding player in this league for a long, long time."
Thomas has been more than outstanding. He's been indispensable. And after a season in which he broke the team record for touchdown receptions by a tight end, the Broncos would rather not imagine a passing game without him available -- not for a long time, anyway.