Half an hour afterward, Peyton Manning was diplomatic about the third 50-point explosion of the season by the Broncos offense he runs.
“I wasn’t trying to answer it because I didn’t give it validation in the first place,” he said of the cold-weather narrative that became the main storyline going into Sunday’s frigid matchup with the Tennessee Titans. “We had a good plan and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well.”
He was a little more direct in his post-game conversation with 850 KOA play-by-play man Dave Logan, which occurred shortly after he came off the field.
“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don’t shine,” Manning said.
Actually, he should probably be thanking the many writers, commentators and fan blogs that broke down his career results by temperature last week. Since his arrival in Denver, Manning has never so clearly inhabited the Michael Jordan in him. He used the cold-weather critiques as motivation — and it worked, producing his seventh game of the season with at least four touchdown passes, an NFL record.
The narrative quickly turned to how ridiculous the previous narrative had been.
All sports are now in a period where stat geeks are cool — rebranded as analytics gurus. Numbers will tell the story if you just let them. So we saw studies over the past week pulling out Manning’s win-loss record in games that begin at temperatures below . . . 40 . . . 32 . . . and, on the CBS telecast, 30 (1-5 going in). The official starting temperature Sunday was 18.
Starting temperature became the proxy for foul weather generally because it is recorded in each game book and therefore readily available. Pretty much any other discussion of weather would be harder to quantify for purposes of numerical analysis.
Much of the Manning-as-a-bad-foul-weather-quarterback narrative predates his arrival in Denver. Losing a bad-weather game for the Colts, who play their home games indoors, was often explained as Manning and his teammates not being accustomed to playing in the elements. But “bad weather” takes in a host of conditions, at least two of them deleterious to anybody’s passing game — wind and precipitation. On the other hand, you can have days like Sunday, which are extremely cold but otherwise sunny and still.
Win-loss records in a small sample can be misleading anyway, as we’ve seen since Manning’s arrival in Denver. Before Sunday, he had started two games at temperatures below 30 — the playoff game against the Ravens last season (13 degrees) and the Sunday night game at New England two weeks ago (22). The Broncos lost both as a result of freak plays that had nothing to do with their quarterback — the Joe Flacco prayer and the punt that bounced off Tony Carter. Either could have been a win and it wouldn’t have changed how Manning played.
Sunday, he didn’t leave it to chance, throwing six touchdown passes if you count the two overturned on review.
“I got tired of them overturning them,” Manning said of consecutive touchdown passes reversed in the first quarter. “I’ve never gone back and forth that many times to the sideline and bench.”
The genesis of the Denver cold-weather narrative was the playoff game last January against the Ravens, when analytics confirmed Manning threw the ball 20 yards or more down the field only once. Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, now retired, said the Ravens knew he couldn’t throw the ball deep. Throughout his first year following spinal fusion surgery, Manning had vaguely acknowledged issues of nerve regeneration in his arm and hand, experimenting with gloves that would help him get a better grip on the ball.
Manning also said he was making progress in that area all the time, so the question became whether another year of recovery would make a difference. Sunday, it certainly looked like it had. Manning threw the ball crisply and accurately, an amazing 59 times in all. He completed 39, a franchise record, for 397 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 107.8, far better than the 70.4 he put up in New England two weeks ago.
It didn’t hurt that he had a chance to practice all week in even colder temperatures during the arctic blast that hit Denver.
“I thought he did a superb job, I think our team did a superb job of getting ready for those elements,” said head coach John Fox, back on the sideline after missing a month following open heart surgery.
“We went inside one day because there was a lot of snow and we didn’t want to risk injury, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday were pretty frigid and I thought it was great for us. I think this year one of the advantages has been that we’ve been in cold-weather games. We got to practice in it for three straight days. So I think it’s just going to be something that’s going to help us as we get into December and even into January.”
From the Tennessee defense, which had surrendered only eight touchdown passes in 12 games before surrendering four Sunday, the lament was familiar.
“Their combination of Manning at quarterback with the weapons that they have on the outside is definitely the toughest offense we have played thus far,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty.
Keeping everyone involved and happy, Manning finished with one touchdown pass to each of his four main weapons in the passing game — Wes Welker in the first quarter, Julius Thomas in the second (“I was thankful the referee finally said, ‘The ruling on the field stands,'” Manning said of yet another review), Demaryius Thomas in the third and Eric Decker in the fourth.
As if Manning and his mates aren’t threatening enough records, Fox decided to give kicker Matt Prater a shot at a record-breaking 64-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, with the Titans leading 21-17. It seemed an unlikely day to try it, given the temperature. Prater drilled it just beyond the cross bar.
“I’ve never seen a cement brick kicked 64 yards before,” Ed McCaffrey said on the radio broadcast.
“In those conditions, it was really pretty miraculous,” Fox said. “It was a great kick. I’m sure everybody in the stadium was thinking about the play that happened in college football not that long ago. That was a concern. But he nailed it.”
In fact, Tennessee deployed a return man to try to recreate Auburn’s game-winning touchdown on a missed Alabama field goal in the Iron Bowl a week earlier, but he watched helplessly as Prater’s kick cleared the bar. Prater broke a record shared by Tom Dempsey (1970), Jason Elam (1998), Sebastian Janikowski (2011) and David Akers (2012). Fox rewarded him with a game ball.
If the soap opera surrounding the offense has abated for now, the melodrama surrounding the defense has not. The inability of Jack Del Rio’s unit even to approach last year’s rankings has been a source of frustration.
The Broncos trailed 21-10 midway through the second quarter after giving up a five-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, a 95-yard kickoff return and an eight-play, 89-yard touchdown drive.
“We’ve lost a few starters here over the last three weeks,” Fox said. “Derek Wolfe missed this game. I think there’s no question that there is room for improvement. There is room for improvement in our whole team. To get whole again is going to be important coming down the stretch. We need to play a little better.
“We took a look at some other guys a little bit tonight to develop that throughout the rest of the season. We’re not satisfied at this point. There’s room for improvement and I’m not ashamed to say it.”
Paris Lenon played middle linebacker in the base defense in place of Wesley Woodyard. Omar Bolden got considerable time at safety in place of Duke Ihenacho. The Broncos got cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back from a shoulder injury, but Champ Bailey was back on the inactive list after an ineffective outing last week. With Wolfe out following “seizure-like symptoms” prior to last week’s game in Kansas City, Malik Jackson started at defensive end and rookie Sylvester Williams started at tackle in place of Kevin Vickerson, out for the season with a hip injury.
The offense is so explosive it can turn a 21-10 deficit into a 34-21 advantage in less than 10 minutes of game time, as it did Sunday. The 51-28 final score made the Broncos the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to score at least 50 three times in the same season. Their 515 points are a franchise record and they have three games still to play. Manning’s 45 touchdown passes are a franchise record and five shy of the league record, set by Tom Brady in 2007.
And he isn’t satisfied.
“You score 51 points, so you’re doing something right,” Manning said. “We’ll study the film, even in this short week, and we’ll look at a couple of the red zones where, ‘Hey, what could we have done better to get into the end zone?’ You’re down there that close inside the 2- or 3-yard line, I want to say maybe twice, and had to settle for field goals. Those are points left on the board.
“There are still a lot of things we’re doing well. But you study each game individually, and it’s about doing it each week. And we’ve got a short turnaround. Ninety-five (offensive) plays is probably not the best scenario for a Thursday night game. And we took some injuries and we’re not sure how that’s going to affect us. I’m not a fan of Thursday games for this reason alone. But we’ve got to deal with it and we’re playing a division opponent who we had a close game against the last time.”
That would be San Diego, up Thursday night in the final home game of the regular season. Manning becomes maniacally worried about the next game as soon as the last one is over. Last week, the cold-weather critique gave him fuel for his fire, but he doesn’t really need it. At 37, he remains on a pace to produce the greatest season by a passer in NFL history.