- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

Julius Thomas has lost the element of surprise.

The Denver Broncos’ big tight end had a big opener a year ago, when he caught five passes for 110 yards and two TDs in a walloping of Baltimore. That sent fantasy football players scrambling to their laptops to pick him up.

He caught three touchdown passes in Denver’s 31-24 win over Indy last week, and by now every football fan knows him.

Thomas caught Peyton Manning’s eye as soon as the quarterback arrived in Denver in 2012.

Players couldn’t work out at the team’s headquarters, so Manning and a few teammates, including Thomas, went to nearby Valor Christian High School, “which was a great facility,” Manning said.

“And the track team is practicing track, running around the track and the FedEx guy filming the whole workout. I don’t know if the package got there on time that day or not,” Manning said. “So it’s just the little things you got to deal with.

“But Julius was one of the few guys, he and (Eric) Decker, I was throwing with and I remember going, ‘Golly, 6-4 tight end, those guys don’t come around very often and they can really run.’”

Thomas, however, aggravated a leg injury during the workouts and wouldn’t be himself until a year ago, when he had a breakout season with 65 receptions for 788 yards and a dozen TDs.

His seven-catch, 104-yard performance and trio of touchdowns against the Colts earned Thomas his first AFC Offensive Player of the Week honor.

“I think he’ll be a better player this year than he was last year, I really do,” Manning said.


COUGHLIN’S CHARITY: Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund Foundation is helping Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this Sunday. Twelve families of pediatric oncology patients will attend the game with Arizona as guests of the fund. They will wear special edition Jay Fund #GoGold T-shirts.

Coughlin and his coaching staff will also wear #GoGold pins to show their support; Coughlin will wear the pin during all September games.

Before kickoff, two ambassador patients, Ahtziri Garcia, 12, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2012, and Shameem Crooks, a 2014 graduate of Teaneck, New Jersey High School who was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 2011, will join the captains of the Giants and Cardinals for the opening coin toss.

“We hope attending Sunday’s game puts a smile on the faces of all of the children and their families, and creates life-long memories for everyone,” said Keli Coughlin, executive director of the fund.

The Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation was created in 1996 in honor of Jay McGillis, a player for Coughlin at Boston College who developed leukemia and passed away.


JOHNNY’S JERSEY: It didn’t take long for Johnny Manziel’s jersey to slide from the top of the popularity charts.

Manziel sat for Cleveland’s loss at Pittsburgh on opening weekend while Brian Hoyer quarterbacked the Browns. After leading in sales in Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Jersey Report, Johnny Football stood fifth in the week ending Sept. 11 - although he was still first overall since the draft.

He was, by far, the top-rated non-starter in the league, as well as the highest-ranked Brown. Cornerback Joe Haden came in 33rd for the period.

Fans were most interested last week in purchasing the jerseys of Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck and LeSean McCoy in the last week.


TENNESSEE MOUNTAIN HOME: Cowboys tight end Jason Witten will play at Tennessee for the second time in his 12-year career. He grew up in the state and was a standout for the Tennessee Volunteers before Dallas drafted him in the third round in 2003.

The nine-time Pro Bowler goes home on the verge of becoming the third tight end in league history with 10,000 yards receiving. It’s unlikely he’ll get there against the Titans - he still needs 187 yards after being held to a pair of catches for 14 yards against San Francisco. But it will be a special weekend for him either way.

“It’s really kind of where the dream started for me,” said Witten, who had two catches for 19 yards at the Titans early in the 2006 season. “A lot of people invested in me when they didn’t have to, a lot of family, coaches, high school and college.”

Witten isn’t getting carried away in the sentiment, though. He’s not big on socializing on such trips. And while he’s taking care of family and friends, he says it only amounts to about 15 tickets.

“I’m pretty strict on those things, but I’m sure there will be a pretty big crowd this week,” Witten said.


RUNNIN’ DALTON: New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson showed a few surprises in the Bengals’ 23-16 opening win at Baltimore, including Andy Dalton running option plays. He’d fake a handoff as part of a zone-read play, roll out and pitch it out.

Expect to see more of Dalton running around.

“Your goal offensively would be to always keep the other team off-balance as much as you can and get them to have to keep turning the page and turning the page,” coach Marvin Lewis said.

The Bengals haven’t used Dalton very much as part of the running game until now.

“I may not be as athletic as some of the guys in this league, but I feel comfortable doing it,” said Dalton, who ran more at TCU. “The thing we are always looking for is the right matchup. Most of the time I just handed the ball off and got out of the way. We didn’t do that here very much, but in college I ran it a lot.”


AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner, Teresa M. Walker and Arnie Stapleton, and Sports Writers Joe Kay and Schuyler Dixon contributed to this notebook.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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