ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are times in the NFL when a bye week is looked upon as if it were some magic elixir with the power to heal those who need it.
“I definitely needed this bye," Thomas said of Broncos' bye in the first round of the playoffs. “I’m looking forward to it. It’ll just give me an opportunity to focus on rehab. When you’re practicing and playing, it’s kind of hard. It’s a little bit of give and take. So this next week, it’ll be big for me from a recovery standpoint."
Since the Broncos’ Nov. 16 loss in St. Louis, they have certainly made a concerted effort to put a little more dirt under their fingernails and run the ball more. They’ve averaged 33 carries a game since that defeat and have topped 30 carries in four of the last six games after hitting at least 30 carries just three times in their first 10 games.
The other major difference in the offense has been Thomas’ left ankle injury.
Before the injury, Thomas was averaging four catches and 42.6 yards per game while leading the league in touchdown receptions with 12.
Since he returned –- he’s played in the last three games -- Thomas has averaged 1.5 catches and 31.5 yards per game without a touchdown. In Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders, Thomas played 33 snaps and not only did not have a reception, he was not thrown to in the game.
And most difficult for Thomas is this has the migraine-inducing feel of a road he has been down before.
“It’s a frustrating game," said Thomas, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. “But I always say life’s always going to throw something at you, so you’ve got to be prepared for it and do what you can to overcome it. So I’ve dealt with adversity before and I’ve found a way through it and I’ll continue to do so."
Thomas essentially lost the first two seasons of his career -- 2011 and 2012 -- to a right ankle injury he suffered on his first NFL reception Sept. 18, 2011 in Cincinnati. Following the 5-yard catch, Thomas missed 23 of the next 32 regular-season games, had surgery following the 2011 season and didn’t catch another pass until Sept. 5, 2013, when he finished with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season-opening win over the Baltimore Ravens last year.
Broncos head coach John Fox, when asked this week if Thomas was still “struggling" with the injury, said: “I didn’t say that, you did."
Fox said Thomas’ track since his return has essentially been that of a player coming back from some missed time.
“He did come off an injury," Fox said. “He’s working his way back into it. (He) just has to continue to get healthy and continue to work his way back into it."
Then Fox later added: “I don’t think he’s struggling."
For his part, Thomas has said the current injury is "nothing like" his injury from 2011 and that he is close to feeling how he did earlier in the season when he was on pace to break the record for touchdowns receptions in a season by a tight end.
Defenses have altered, at least to some degree, how they have played the Broncos since Thomas was hurt. Thomas consistently stressed defenses down the deep middle and didn’t allow opposing coordinators to put an extra player in the middle of the field to take away the Broncos’ coveted crossing routes.
The Broncos had slightly more success testing the perimeter of the Raiders’ defense Sunday with Ronnie Hillman’s return at running back after he missed six games with a left foot injury. And the Broncos targeted tight end Virgil Green three times in the passing game Sunday -- Green finished with three receptions and his first career touchdown.
Still, when the Broncos face their opponent Jan. 11 in the divisional round, Thomas believes his chances of making some kind of impact will have improved.
“I just try to do everything I can, continue to get better and try to get healthier," Thomas said. “Some things feel great, some things I’m still trying to improve on. It kind of changes day-to-day, but I’m just going to keep working with it and keep doing all I can. That is definitely the goal. I’m hoping that in two weeks it’ll be a big change for me. So get over that hump and get back to looking like the guy I used to be. So I’m looking forward to it and definitely anticipate being in better health."