JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Broncos third-year tight end Julius Thomas began the season with more NCAA tournament trips (two) on his resume than catches in the NFL (one).
Now, the former power forward at Portland State is the key to Denver's record-shattering offense, freeing up Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, especially in the red zone.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound late-bloomer is also a bulls-eye for some of Manning's biggest moments, like when he caught his 51st TD throw that broke Tom Brady's single-season record, one of a dozen touchdown passes he caught this year, breaking Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe's team record for tight ends.
He was Manning's main target in the AFC Championship, too, with eight receptions for 85 yards a week after his two clutch third-down catches helped ice Denver's win over San Diego.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself," Manning said, "that he hasn't played a ton of football."
A giant banner of Thomas hangs outside the media hotel in Times Square, an indication of just how far this relative football toddler has come.
"Is my helmet on?" Thomas asked sheepishly Monday while aboard the Cornucopia Majesty ship, docked outside the team hotel across the Hudson River.
"OK, that's good. So, I won't get recognized too much," Thomas said. "That's a lot of people walking by seeing that thing."
He might want to get used to the spotlight.
With the wintry weather and Seattle's stingy secondary sure to stifle some of Manning's other options, Thomas could be Denver's X-factor in the Super Bowl.
"No, this isn't something that I imagined doing when I was 20 years old getting ready to play in the NCAA tournament," Thomas said. "I wasn't thinking, 'Man, if you just fast-forward that clock a little bit, you'll be competing in the biggest game in America.' It's just a blessing to be here. I've been very blessed in my athletic career, so I'm going to enjoy it."
Thomas played just one year of football in college after exhausting his eligibility on the hardwood. He tried to line up with the receivers on his first day of practice but was ushered over to the tight ends group.
"I was like, 'What? Hold on, I don't know about all that,'" Thomas recounted. "But Coach (Nigel) Burton, he sat me down and we talked about it and he told me that he felt if I played tight end I'd be able to create matchup problems."
Sure enough, he caught 29 passes for 453 yards and earned All-Big Sky Conference first-team honors in 2010, and he caught a touchdown pass and the attention of scouts at the East-West Shrine Game.
"I really thank him for helping me decide to play tight end," Thomas said. "It was a great move on his part to not let me play receiver. I've loved playing tight end ever since."