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It was the Broncos’ reliance on the run that sold the play-fake on the first snap of overtime — they had rushed on 23 of 25 first downs up to that point.

“It’s always good to see us get the big passes, especially because everyone says we can’t throw the ball,” said tailback Willis McGahee, who had implored the Broncos to improve their passing attack to enhance an already stout ground game.

The Broncos’ formula during their eight wins under Tebow had been to play stout defense and spectacular on special teams to keep the grind-it-out offense within striking distance until Tebow could pull off his last-minute magic.

Now, they’re mixing in explosive plays.

And Tebow doesn’t have to be pinpoint with his passes if the safeties come up and cornerbacks cover the receivers 1-on-1 because his reads will be simpler. He’ll have more margin for error if players such as Thomas, who has great hands, have more room to maneuver and fewer defensive backs to get in his way.

“We were just waiting for him to come out and play the way we knew he could and show everybody,” Royal said.

Eric Decker, who sprained his left knee on the first play of the second quarter last week, isn’t expected to play against the Patriots.

Although he was the Broncos’ best receiver in the regular season, with 44 catches for 612 yards and eight touchdowns, half his scores came with Kyle Orton at quarterback. Tebow’s top target was actually Thomas, who caught every one of his 32 receptions for 551 yards and four TDs from the lefty.

Over the last two months, Thomas has been one of the most dominating players in the league despite playing in a conservative offense that doesn’t allow receivers to strut their stuff too much.

On Sunday, he amassed 204 yards on just four receptions.

“I remember watching him at Georgia Tech and seeing this guy,” Royal said. “He didn’t get many opportunities there. But when he got them, he made big plays and that’s the type of player that he is. I can’t imagine what he would do with 20 targets a game. The sky’s the limit for this kid. I just hope he continues to get better and I know he will.”

In an interesting twist, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who took a chance by drafting both Thomas and Tebow in the first round two years ago, has rejoined the Patriots‘ staff in time to help them try to end Denver’s season.

“You know, he’s a very good coach and I wish him nothing but the best, and I’m very thankful for him having the confidence in drafting me,” Tebow said. “But I’m very excited about the coaches that we have here.”