SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time the Denver Broncos played in a Super Bowl -- to close out the 2013 season -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas got steamrolled by Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor early in the first quarter. Thomas wobbled back to his feet and fought to 118 of the most difficult receiving yards a wideout could have in a 35-point loss.
Two years later, the Broncos stepped off their chartered flight to San Jose on Sunday afternoon, heading into the build-up for Super Bowl 50 and needing Thomas to lift his game. The Broncos have made it to the NFL’s title game with their alpha wide receiver still looking to make a significant impact.
“I’ll keep working," Thomas said. “You always want to make plays to help us win. ... Just keep working."
Thomas, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal in the offseason, had four catches for 40 yards in the Broncos’ divisional-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and two catches for 12 yards in the Broncos’ AFC Championship Game win over the New England Patriots.
Asked if he was worried about the offense if the Broncos can’t get their leading receiver involved, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak stood firm in support of his 100-catch receiver.
“No, I mean I’m proud of D.T.," Kubiak said. “He’s worked really hard. [Patriots coach] Bill [Belichick] took him away last week. I mean I’ve never seen so many guys on one guy a couple of times, and that’s a compliment to him, so you’ve got to go try to win other ways. D.T. understands that, but he’s worked really hard."
But it is a growing trend at this point. In the Broncos' past three playoff games combined, including the divisional-round loss to the Indianapolis Colts that ended the Broncos’ 2014 season, Thomas has 11 catches for 111 yards (37 yards per game) and one touchdown (in the loss against the Colts).
Quarterback Peyton Manning has tried to get the ball to Thomas this postseason. He has been targeted 15 times in the Broncos’ two playoff wins, or just one fewer target than Emmanuel Sanders, who has turned his 16 postseason targets into 10 receptions.
But it has been that kind of season for Thomas -- sometimes dominant, sometimes perplexing. He had a career-most 18 drops this season, including a five-drop night against the Patriots in November. His concentration has wavered in games, with the dropped passes often coming in clusters. But he also had his second consecutive 100-catch season -- his 105 receptions ranked seventh in the league -- and he had his fourth consecutive season with at least 1,300 yards receiving.
Thomas started 16 games for the fourth consecutive year, but has had his share of bumps and bruises that have limited him in practice. He can consistently be seen shaking his hand after catches, thanks to a finger injury.
Thomas’ season was also marked by his mother’s release from prison. Katina Smith saw Thomas play in a game for the first time in December, and she is scheduled to attend the Super Bowl. Smith went to prison for drug trafficking when Thomas was 11 years old. Her sentence pardoned by President Barack Obama in November.
“I know he’ll be ready to go [in the Super Bowl]," Kubiak said. "I know that the fact that his mom will get a chance to be there -- I think there are a lot of things going on in his life that he’s handled very, very well. I know he’ll be ready to go."
“I really feel like it’s a blessing to be here," Thomas said. “I always think I can do more and I want to do more and I need to do more. But we played hard, you just keep grinding because this whole teams grinds."