On a day the Broncos toyed with the Kansas City Chiefs while securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, Manning and wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker thrilled the home fans with a show that punctuated their first season together and proved that chemistry, indeed, has been achieved.
Both Thomas and Decker made spectacular touchdown catches on throws by Manning. It was all hugs, high praise and laughter.
It was also a signal to the rest of the postseason field that Manning and his receivers are ready to be difference-makers when it counts. After his health, the biggest question about Manning’s first season in Denver was how quickly he was going to get in sync with Thomas and Decker.
Manning’s game is based totally on chemistry and timing between himself and his receivers. In his heyday with Indianapolis, Manning was blessed with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But Manning has succeeded with young, unproven receivers before. Going into the season, Thomas and Decker -- a first-round and a third-round pick in 2010, respectively -- were considered potential solid starters. But after spending 2011 with Tim Tebow, neither had the opportunity to flourish in the receiving game.
Yet, with Denver three days away from hosting Baltimore in a divisional-round playoff game (kickoff is 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday), it is clear that the relationship between Manning and Thomas and Decker is flourishing. Denver is 13-2 and has won 11 games in a row. Manning is a leading MVP candidate, and Thomas and Decker are nightmares for opposing defenses.
“It’s a dream come true for those guys, I think,” Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said of the chance for Thomas and Decker to play with a legend. “This is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, and they’re taking full advantage of it, they work extremely hard. That’s the way they’ve been from day one, from the first day they’ve got here, they’re one of the first guys on the field and one of the last guys to leave every day. They understand that when we signed Peyton the opportunity presented itself to them, and they’re living a pretty good life right now.”
The good living was on display in Week 17, when Manning found both his top receivers for scores. Decker made a fine running catch; Thomas had to leap for his score in the back of the end zone. Manning was recently asked if those two plays were an indication of the connection among them.
“That’s a good question,” Manning told reporters. “Probably would have thrown them earlier, not sure if we would have completed them. It’s hard to say. There’s no question, it would be just downright disappointing if we have not improved throughout the season. ... I think we have done a good job of being the best that we possibly can in this short period of time. It just takes different types of situations, some that you can’t create in practice, some that you can only create in games.”
Manning and his receivers have been creating all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas and Decker are the first Broncos duo to register 1,000-plus receiving yards and 10-plus touchdowns in a season.
Thomas, whom many league observers believe was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, has 94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas had 12 receptions of 30 yards or more -- tops in the NFL. Decker had 85 catches for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns.
To their credit, both Thomas and Decker have become consistent. That gives Manning options and keeps pressure on defenses. Thomas had at least eight catches in five games and 100 yards receiving in seven. Decker added four games of at least eight grabs, and five games in which he surpassed the 80-yard receiving mark.
Decker said he believes he and Thomas continue to gain Manning’s trust.
“I think it’s just increasingly growing as the season goes on,” Decker said. “It can get better, and that’s what we focus on, is making sure that for the particular route, maybe if there’s an adjustment, we’re on the same page. There’s a lot of stuff that we have in. The trust is there, the understanding is there. It’s just a matter of getting enough repetition, and that comes with more time, more experience, which we’re getting. ... I think in any relationship, whether it’s a significant other or a teammate, the more time you get, the better it always develops. I think the more we get on the same page, the more we understand nonverbal cues, certain routes and how to read defenses. All of those things, you can use to your advantage offensively. We’re definitely clicking more as a unit offensively. We’re following our strength, trying to do things right and cut down on the mental errors.”
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn’t think Thomas and Decker make the best receiving duo in the league, but considers them an upper-level duo that fits Manning. Williamson points out that Thomas (whom he thinks he is a top-five receiver) and Decker (Williamson labels him a strong No. 2) are bigger, stronger receivers than Manning was used to working with in Indianapolis.
“I think Manning’s trust in those two has increased quite a bit,” Williamson said. “But the thing with Manning is that he just loves the open guy -- no matter who that is.”
As long as Thomas and Decker keep getting open, their chemistry with Manning will continue to build.