Until the Denver Broncos show they can win a game in extreme winter conditions, the questions about their effectiveness outdoors in the playoffs with quarterback Peyton Manning at the controls will continue to fester.
That's what makes Sunday such an opportunity -- even though Broncos coach John Fox thinks the Broncos' woes in frigid conditions are overstated, given that both of the losses in question -- a 38-35 defeat to Baltimore in last January's playoffs and the 34-31 loss at New England on Nov. 24 -- came in overtime and were more the result of gaffes by others as anything Manning did or did not do.
"We could have won either game," said Fox. "My point is if we won them, I don't think we're having this conversation. We very easily could have won them."
But the Broncos didn't. Manning's season lows for yardage, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating all came at New England, when the temperature at kickoff was 22 degrees and the winds gusted to well over 30 miles per hour. Further, he is now 0-2 as Denver's quarterback when the kickoff temperature is below freezing, compared with 23-4 in all other games -- including 21-1 since Week 6 of last year.
Sunday's temperature at kickoff is forecast to be between 15 and 18 degrees, which would make it one of the five coldest home games the Broncos have ever played -- and means that Manning will wear a pair of gloves to compensate.
"It's just part of the adjustment I've kind of had to make," Manning said. "I've said that I've had to make a lot of changes in this point in my career. I'm kind of coming off an injury and with a different team.
"It's part of the adjustment that I've made and tried to adjust and still working through it kind of each time that I wear it."
Manning has worn gloves in other games and flourished. On a 55-degree day at Kansas City last Sunday, he donned the gloves and lit up the Chiefs for five touchdowns and a season-high 11.5 yards per attempt. And while the Broncos lost to Baltimore in 13-degree weather 11 months ago, he still completed 65.1 percent of his 43 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns against a pair of interceptions.
But until the final result of a cold-weather game is different, doubts will persist -- and opponents like the Titans will try and gain a psychological advantage, even though they hail from warmer cities than Denver.
"Well, if it means it will help us, then I'm all for it," said Titans coach Mike Munchak.
But Munchak later tempered his sentiments that a cold, snowy day would help his team.
"A team that scores as many points as they do, you would think that may have an effect and slow them down a tad," Munchak said. "I don't know necessarily if that will matter a whole lot, unless we use it to our advantage."
The Broncos escaped the chilly conditions in Denver for Wednesday's practice by retreating to an indoor all-sports facility a mile away, but are expected to practice outside Thursday and/or Friday in temperatures that hover in the single digits.
"We're going to have plenty of opportunities to practice in the weather this week according to the weather report," Fox said. "'Arctic blast' has kind of a unique sound to it."
And it's a sound and fury that the Broncos might hear again in January, so being forced to practice and play in it now cannot hurt.
SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. Titans lead series, 21-14-1. Denver has won three of the last four. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Jan. 4, 1992, when John Elway led "The Drive II," a 12-play, 87-yard march in the final 2:07 to a David Treadwell field goal and a 26-24 win over the then-Houston Oilers in the divisional playoffs.
--The records of the Titans and Broncos might be reversed if quarterback Peyton Manning had chosen in March 2012 to return to the state where he played his college football. If Tennessee had him, the last two seasons of quarterback instability might have been avoided, and it's possible the Titans would be the team in this game contending for the AFC's top seed.
"I'm glad they don't, because we've got him," deadpanned Broncos coach John Fox.
The Titans pursued Manning heavily and watched a private workout in Knoxville, Tenn. during the courtship process. The Broncos and 49ers also had private workouts with Manning, held at Duke University.
Manning chose the Broncos -- but it wasn't an easy choice.
"You kind of almost want to go to each team for a little bit," Manning said. "Go play here for a year, go play here for a little bit. But you've got to make one decision."
The process wore on Manning -- and the teams involved. Titans coach Mike Munchak noted this week that his team's free-agency plan for 2012 was affected by the wait on Manning's decision, as the quarterback would have chewed up $18 million under anyone's salary cap.
"You felt a little bit squeezed by the teams. I really didn't like having some teams kind of in limbo based on what I was doing," Manning said. "I did not enjoy that, with the draft coming up and teams having made decisions."
--Aside from conducting practice in a municipal sports facility one mile north of team headquarters because of a snowstorm, it was business as usual at Broncos practice for the first time in over a month, with head coach John Fox moving from one position group to another, helming the proceedings.
"I felt great," said Fox. "I've been exercising pretty hard for a month and I felt tremendous."
Fox's role in practice is clearly of a supervisory nature; more often than not, he takes a hands-off approach, leaving his coordinators free to implement their game plans. Where Fox was missed was in the emotional support; in practice and games, he has long tried to keep the mood light.
"(When) coach (Jack) Del Rio had to step in, he did a great job. But it feels the same having coach Fox out there with the energy that he brings and just little side conversations and stuff," said linebacker Von Miller. "It does make practice a lot easier having your commander in chief."
The main question for Fox now is whether he spends Sunday's game in the frigid conditions forecast for Denver or if he opts to spend the game in the coaches' box on the press level.
"I think if it's really cold I'll be in the box, but that's not really the way I'm looking at it," Fox said. "I don't think it's going to matter much. I spent probably half of my career in the press box as a defensive coach and the other half as a head coach on the sidelines.
"I communicate with the same people, and really I think it's more likely whether the decision on the sidelines or the press box is if I'm chewing Juicy Fruit or spearmint."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5.2 -- Yardage per carry for the Broncos the last two weeks, well above the 3.6 yards-per-carry average amassed in Weeks 1-11.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There hasn't been a lot normal about this season by any means, I don't think." -- Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, when asked whether seeing head coach John Fox back at practice meant things were back to normal.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Eric Decker was named the AFC's offensive player of the week after catching a Broncos-record four touchdown passes against the Chiefs last Sunday. Decker is just 29 yards away from his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
--DT Mitch Unrein played a season-high 50 percent of the snaps Sunday, replacing injured starter Kevin Vickerson. Unrein finished with a season-high three tackles in his third career start.
--QB Brock Osweiler received another day of practice with the first team when Peyton Manning sat out Wednesday. Manning has not practiced on a Wednesday since prior to the Week 7 loss at Indianapolis.
--LB Danny Trevathan is one of just two Broncos defenders to have started every game this season, along with Terrance Knighton. Trevathan leads the Broncos with 95 tackles.
--QB Peyton Manning did not practice Wednesday, as has become his custom since he injured his ankle in October. He is expected to practice Thursday and play against the Titans.
--CB Champ Bailey practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, three days after playing for the first time since Week 7. Bailey's repetitions were limited against the Chiefs, and he missed part of another series because he had the wind knocked out of him.
--DL Derek Wolfe is out of a hospital but is still being evaluated to determine the cause of seizure-like symptoms that kept him from traveling to Kansas City last weekend. Wolfe did not practice Wednesday, and no timetable for his return has been set.
--DL Malik Jackson was limited in practice Wednesday with a knee problem. Jackson is being counted upon to fill the void created by the injury to Derek Wolfe.
--TE Julius Thomas practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. He has missed the last two games with a knee injury.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday was at practice Wednesday, but did not take part after injuring his shoulder against Kansas City on Sunday. He is considered "day-to-day."
--TE Joel Dreessen did not practice Wednesday, but like Peyton Manning, he has been held out of Wednesday practices frequently this season. Dreessen had two knee surgeries this summer, leading to the Broncos' mid-week caution.
--RB Knowshon Moreno saw limited work in Wednesday's practice. Moreno bruised his ankle against New England, but played a week later at Kansas City. Moreno is 158 yards away from the first 1,000-yard season of his career. Moreno has 1,256 yards from scrimmage this year and is on pace for 1,675 yards from scrimmage, which would be the best for a Broncos player since Clinton Portis racked up 1,905 in 2003.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. He injured his shoulder on the final play before halftime against New England and was inactive at Kansas City. He is considered "day-to-day."
--WR Demaryius Thomas practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but is expected to play against Tennessee. Thomas injured his shoulder in the first quarter at Kansas City, but returned and caught a 77-yard pass, his longest since Week 1.
GAME PLAN: The aggressive history of Tennessee's Gregg Williams' defenses in his years as a coordinator makes protecting Peyton Manning the highest priority. The Broncos might use some more two-tight end formations, as they favored last week, to keep Manning's pocket pristine and also provide more support for the running game, which has flourished with a 200-yard game from Knowshon Moreno at New England and Montee Ball's first career 100-yard game at Kansas City. This would also set up the play-action game, which Denver used to devastating effect in the win over the Chiefs and would like to unleash again against the Titans.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Broncos LBs Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard vs. Titans RB Chris Johnson -- This year, Johnson has not had the kind of spectacular runs for which he is renowned, and he has just three runs of longer than 10 yards in the Titans' last nine games. But he still represents perhaps the biggest upset threat, especially given the Broncos' recent weakness against the run; the Broncos have allowed 4.7 yards per carry the last four games after permitting just 3.4 yards per carry in the first eight.
Broncos OL Zane Beadles and Chris Clark vs. Titans DT Jurrell Casey -- Casey has emerged as one of the league's most effective interior pass rushers, and the Titans could try and line him up opposite Beadles, who has struggled against the pass rush this year. With Casey, who has eight sacks, and weak-side linebacker Zach Brown, who has four sacks, the Titans might try to overload the left side of the Broncos line in an attempt to pressure Manning.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football