- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Trust is earned, so when the Denver Broncos needed, really needed, two third-down conversions Sunday night to close out their 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Peyton Manning scanned a vast array of targets and options, then threw the ball to tight end Julius Thomas both times.
The first of those, a 21-yard completion on a third-and-17 with just more than three minutes left in Sunday's game, may be on a remember-when list of plays that meant something to the organization, especially if this season ends with the last trophy handed out.
His 9-yard reception on a third-and-6 three plays later was also certainly an impact play Sunday.
"We work on the situations, make sure we stay on the field, make sure we finish the game in the victory formation," Thomas said. " ... I'm just aware that I get myself in the right spot because you know if you're in the right spot and the defense is playing a certain way, Peyton is going to get you the ball."
"Julius was huge all game," Manning said. "He's been huge all season ... Those were two huge plays."
While those two plays were just more proof on the pile of what has been Thomas' breakout season with the Broncos -- he had one catch in his first two years with the Broncos -- they were not simply spur of the moment, knee-jerk decisions. Those two catches were built from the ground up, from rolled-up sleeves, repetition and a willingness to dive in.
"Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice," Manning said. "And that's one of the most rewarding parts of football, when you put that work in, off to the side and after practice, and it pays off for you in a game ... those two plays were certainly worth the hard work."
But Thomas didn't just put the work in when the 65 catches started to come his way this season, or those 12 touchdowns. No, Thomas, coming off a rookie season when he played in only five games because of an ankle injury he suffered on his only NFL reception to that point, was one of a smattering of players who worked with Manning right from the start.
With a new collective bargaining agreement in place after the Broncos had made Manning the biggest catch of the free-agency era in March of 2012, the players could not work at the Broncos' complex with any coaches looking over things.
So, they gathered on their own at a local high school. Thomas was part of a group that included Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas as well. Those gatherings will always be a big part of the foundation for what has become the highest-scoring offense in the league's history.
When the pressure mounted Sunday, when history was closing in on the Broncos for a potential heartbreak repeat, Manning looked over the swirling mass of humanity and saw Julius Thomas running free. There was execution there, the kind that forced a Chargers' defensive mistake, there was a plan and there was down to the inch precision.
But there was trust as well, and at least part of that was earned when almost nobody was watching.