DENVER -- It was so simple, when distilled to its essence: Demaryius Thomas ran a go route and was gone.
With 1:48 left before halftime, the fifth-year wide receiver sprinted outside Arizona cornerback Antonio Cromartie up the left sideline, caught a pass delivered in stride from Peyton Manning and dashed away. The play covered 86 yards, a start-to-finish sprint which served thunderous notice that his September struggles were nothing more than a speed bump on his highway to greatness.
By the time the Broncos' 41-20 dismantling of the previously undefeated Cardinals was complete, Thomas had a team-record 226 receiving yards on eight receptions, scored two touchdowns and restored order to the offense -- and to his own 2014 season. By halftime Sunday, he had more yards than he amassed in the first three games.
"People have talked about, 'This slump, that slump,'" said Head Coach John Fox. "But he answered the bell today and had a big day."
Ah, the "slump." A three-week stretch in which Thomas caught 13 passes for 141 yards, scored one touchdown and added a game-tying two-point conversion with 18 seconds left in regulation at Seatt;e.
Those numbers put him on pace for a 69-catch, 752-yard season. Not bad. But nowhere near the pace he set from the end of 2011 through 2013, a 43-game stretch including the postseason in which he averaged 94 receptions for 1,471 yards and 12 touchdowns per 16 games.
That is greatness. That is his standard, which he began to establish months before Manning signed with the Broncos.
"He has no ceiling," said fellow wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "He's fast -- he's just as fast as me. He can take you over the top, he can beat you underneath."
Thomas can do anything asked of a wide receiver in the modern, pass-intensive game. That's why Weeks 1-3 were so stunning, because he did not come close to meeting his expectations, even though he refused to call the reduced output a slump.
"I can say I never had three (games) like my first three," he said.
In those games, he dropped four passes. According to STATS, Inc., that put him in the league lead in drops per game (1.33). He endured an unknown struggle in an unfamiliar role, finding himself in the slot more often in Weeks 1 and 2, while Wes Welker missed two games to a league suspension.
"I had to play slot because Welker was out and I'm not used to that," Thomas said. "I knew if it was like third-and-5, Peyton always went to Welker and I knew if I'm not open, he's going to be on me.
"So I was thinking when I got the ball coming my way, I would drop it, and first one I dropped, I let it get to my head, (thinking), 'I'm letting down Peyton, I'm letting down my team.'"
Then came the bye week. Its timing was reviled by some because it arrived with 13 regular-season games still left to play, Thomas saw it as an opportunity. At no one's prompting but his own, he worked harder.
"Somebody asked me, 'Did y'all challenge Demaryius?' Demaryius challenged himself during the bye week," said Manning. "He knew he wasn't playing up to his capabilities."
"I did challenge myself," he said. "Before we went on bye week, I came in one Monday before everybody and caught, like, 250 balls.
"Every game I had drops -- and not like I am used to that -- so I came in and caught balls. Throughout the week once we got back to practice, I tried to do a little more than what I usually to do."
And the Cardinals were the ideal opponent to face when he needed a rebound. Their defense is unafraid of gambling on the strength of Cromartie and fellow cornerback Patrick Peterson in press man coverage.
If the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas could use his size and speed advantage to avoid a forced detour from his route at the snap, he would be in position for the type of big plays that have defined his career to date, but were missing in September.
None were bigger than a touchdown that was the Broncos' longest offensive play in five years, a play that was the apex of the Manning-to-Demaryius connection that continues to propel the offense.
"Demaryius always does that. He always goes off," said Sanders. "All the media has been criticizing him in terms of his production and things of that sort. I went on NFL Network and told them, 'Demaryius can go off at any moment and have a 200-yard game.'"
He did, and accomplished his team-record performance in the simplest fashion: by being bigger, faster, stronger and more agile than the man facing him, and exploiting the advantage at every turn.