- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - The Indianapolis Colts had no answer for Julius Thomas in the season opener, when Denver’s big tight end scored a trio of touchdowns in single coverage against two linebackers and a safety.

Afterward, Colts coach Chuck Pagano called him a “monster” and a “matchup nightmare.”

Yet, when the teams meet again in the playoffs this weekend, it’s more likely the Thomas giving the Colts headaches will be Demaryius, not Julius.

The Broncos’ star receiver (who’s no relation to their standout tight end) overcame a slow start this season to score 11 TDs and set a franchise single-season record with 1,619 yards receiving on 111 catches.

“I can’t be too excited,” Demaryius Thomas said. “What would make it better, we go out and win the Super Bowl because you can’t take that from me but you can always take a record. So I’m excited, but we’ve still got some work to do.”

Thomas provided the size and strength to go with the speed of Emmanuel Sanders, who set career highs with 101 catches for 1,404 yards and nine TDs in his first year in Denver.

Both of them played through injuries. Thomas had a bum ankle and a jammed finger by the time the season ended and Sanders was dealing with a bad back from, a residual effect of all those hard hits from safeties.

“Those are tough guys,” Peyton Manning said. “Two outstanding years. Emmanuel should’ve made the Pro Bowl, in my opinion, with the statistics he put up and Demaryius has been a marked man from defenses. To still have the year that he did … both those guys are outstanding players.”

Meanwhile, Julius Thomas parlayed his three-TD performance in Denver’s 31-24 win over the Colts in the opener to become the first tight end in NFL history to score a dozen touchdowns in back-to-back seasons.

It sure looked like he’d challenge Rob Gronkowski’s NFL record of 17 touchdowns by a tight end set in 2011, too, when he hauled in his 12th TD on Nov. 9 against Oakland.

He hasn’t scored since.

A sprained lower left ankle at St. Louis the following week knocked him out of that game early and helped keep the Broncos out of the red zone in a stunning loss that ultimately cost Denver the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

It also led to a drastic decline in red zone efficiency and in the way opponents defended Manning.

Without having to worry about the star tight end, opponents played plenty of coverages with a single safety high, bringing the other down to clog up the intermediate crossing routes. That forced Manning to throw more outside the numbers, where he isn’t always as accurate.

Thomas kept insisting this injury wasn’t anything like the right ankle sprain he sustained in 2011 that essentially cost him two full seasons before his breakout last year.

He missed a month of games, however, and during that time the Broncos’ offense morphed from one predicated on the pass to one based on a grinding ground game.

While Demaryius Thomas was capping another stellar season, Julius Thomas returned to action for the final three games but caught just three passes for 63 yards.

“Any time you’re not able to do the things that you want to do and you know you can do, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But there’s not much you can do about it. Just try to find a way to do all you can.”

He welcomed the Broncos’ bye last week that they earned as the conference’s second seed.

“It was a big week for me. It was good to get some rest,” Julius Thomas said. “Every doctor will tell you the most important thing is rest, but it’s tough to do in the middle of the season. So I got a little bit of time to stay off it and get some treatment on it. It went well.”

Which team advances to the AFC championship on Sunday could come down to whether the Colts have an answer for Thomas this time - and whether he’s the disruptor he was over the first half of the season or the non-factor he was down the stretch.

“I would imagine they’ll do some things a little bit differently,” said Thomas, who wouldn’t mind seeing a linebacker or safety across from him again.

“Playing against man is probably one of the more fun parts of the game,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. If you find out, just leave me a little note. But it’s going to be exciting. Regardless of what they do, we’ll have a good plan. And it’s up to us to execute it.”


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

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