ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis isn't the only one haunted by the "Immaculate Deflection."
So is Brandon Stokley, the wide receiver who caught the batted ball and raced 87 yards for the score with 11 seconds left, giving Denver an improbable 12-7 win at Cincinnati in the 2009 opener.
Lewis, whose Bengals (3-4) host the Broncos (4-3) Sunday, said, "Brandon runs through my mind all the time." Stokley said he, too, has bad dreams about that play in which he cradled cornerback Leon Hall's deflection at midfield and outraced linebacker Dhani Jones into the end zone.
It was the longest winning play from scrimmage in the final minute of a game in NFL history.
When Jones started to pull up, Stokley had the presence of mind to tick an extra four seconds off the clock by veering right and running parallel to the goal line for several strides before stepping into the end zone.
Although Stokley was lauded as a heady veteran for the savvy move, he admitted this week that he'd do things differently today.
"I just kind of saw that nobody was behind me chasing me. I saw a guy kind of give up on it. I knew there wasn't a lot of time left, so I thought why not try to run some time off?" Stokley said. "And then the next day, I kind of started having nightmares about it: What if I'd have gotten caught? What if I had fumbled? What if somebody would have hit me? I think next time I'll probably just get in the end zone."
The "Immaculate Deflection," as it was immediately dubbed, sparked the Broncos to a 6-0 start that season.
"Well, we got lucky, plain and simple," Champ Bailey said of that outlandish touchdown, which came after the Bengals had gone up 7-6 on Cedric Benson's 1-yard TD run with 38 seconds left. "Stokley, he's a crafty vet. He just made a play. He was in the right place at the right time."
If his eyes had deceived him, however, or he flubbed the football somehow before scoring, Stokley would have been more like Leon Lett and not like Don Beebe, the protagonists in the famous Super Bowl play in which the Buffalo Bills wide receiver knocked away the ball from the Dallas Cowboys lineman as he prematurely celebrated a touchdown return two decades ago.
"I just thought it was kind of smart to waste some time," Stokley said. "But crazy things happen."
Stokley saved the ball and gloves, which he has in his home office in Castle Rock, Colo., along with a couple of photos of him and his teammates celebrating the implausible touchdown.
All winter, that might as well have been a shrine to Stokley's career, which he figured was over after a thigh injury led to his release from the New York Giants after two games and just one catch last season.
Peyton Manning changed all that this spring.
The four-time MVP was preparing for his comeback after missing all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck and he needed some targets to throw to as he worked his way back.
He dialed up Austin Collie, Dallas Clark and Stokley, whom he played with in Indy from 2003-06, and invited them to his workouts at Duke University, where he was throwing under the tutelage of his college offensive coordinator, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe.
Manning promised them Duke-North Carolina tickets, but only if they worked out all three days with him.
"Easy sell. I mean, Duke-Carolina is a bucket-list thing for a lot of them," Manning said. "But that was the deal: It was all three days. It wasn't half a day here, or I can't go Friday, it was, you had to throw Thursday, Friday and Saturday for tickets to the Saturday night game."
Stokley began the three-day workout with no idea how he'd hold up and ended it thinking he might just have a 14th NFL season left in him.
"I hadn't run in 3½ months really. So, I didn't know how my quad was going to do, how I was going to feel," Stokley said. "So, I definitely wasn't running full speed that first day because that was a big perk for me. I'm a big Duke basketball fan and so to be able to go to that game was something special."
The last thing he wanted was to pull a hammy or tweak his damaged thigh and find himself on a flight home before ever getting inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. But after that first day, he felt fine and then he really turned it loose.
"I guess rest was better than rehab," said Stokley, who had abandoned his rehabilitation just before Christmas after seeing no progress.
Stokley said he felt so good after that weekend — Duke's 88-70 loss to North Carolina notwithstanding — that he began to contemplate his own comeback.
And yet, he had gnawing doubts: "Was it just the competitor in me thinking I could still do it when I really can't?" he wondered.
And who would want him anyway? "You don't get a lot of people wanting a 36-year-old receiver that played in two games the year before," he reasoned.
After signing with the Broncos, however, Manning went to bat for his buddy.
"I talked to Denver — well, I showed them some film — I said, 'You ought to consider bringing him in and working him out, at least,'" Manning recalled.
Stokley impressed the Broncos, too, and they signed him to a one-year deal.
The "Slot Machine" is paying off once again. Stokley has 21 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns, and along with former Colts tight end Jacob Tamme, has helped bring along Manning's other targets in Denver.
"I'm certainly glad he's here," Manning said. "He's been a big part of our team this year."
They actually owe each other a debt of gratitude.
"I know if he wasn't here, I probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to be here," Stokley said. "He's done a lot for my career in Indy and to give me the opportunity to play here."
Another case of being in the right place at the right time, just like he was on that sunny day in Cincinnati four years ago.
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