DENVER -- When the mercury can crawl only to 18 degrees at kickoff, everything is cold -- frozen hard like stone -- including the facts.
And on a frigid, largely windless day, the fact is some folks just may have to rethink the whole Peyton-Manning-in-the-cold thing, at least a little bit. The fact is the Denver Broncos lead the league in scoring with 515 points, Sunday's 51-28 victory against the Tennessee Titans was the Broncos’ third 50-point effort of the season and they have already set a single-season scoring record for the franchise with three games remaining.
The fact is the Broncos still have the inside track for a division title and the coveted No. 1 seed in the AFC. The fact is their defense still needs some attention. The fact is injuries that have eroded the defense have taken a bite out of the special teams units as well.
And the bottom-line fact to all of that -- 11-2 is still 11-2.
"It’s winning. I don’t care if you win by five or 50 to be honest with you," Broncos coach John Fox said. "This game is only fun if you win and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing it, coaching it, or probably being a fan of it."
So when it’s right-down-to-the-bone cold, as it had been all week in Denver, including Sunday, the fun of winning comes when you line up, mano a mano and ... throw it 59 times. Manning finished with a franchise record 39 completions on a record-tying 59 attempts for 397 yards and four touchdowns.
And after days’ worth of debate over his below-freezing worthiness and with little or no wind to impede him, Manning was not sacked, did not throw an interception and pushed his season touchdown total to 45 with three games to play. The league’s single-season record of 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007, is now within his expansive reach.
Asked following the game if he felt like he had sent a message against the Titans, Manning said: "I wasn’t trying to answer it because I didn’t give it any validation in the first place. We had a good plan and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well."
"I’m sure he’s tired of hearing it," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said of all of the cold-weather talk. "He’s been playing great all season, he’s been playing great his entire career and just to hear people nit-picking about something like the cold, for him to be able to come out there and put 50 on the board and put that whole cold thing to bed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that behind him tomorrow."
But more importantly for the Broncos, their offense was again the trump card. Because for all the Broncos have done this season, they don’t always come out of the blocks with their best and Sunday was the fourth time they have trailed by at least 11 points and eventually won. They trailed 14-0 in Dallas, but won 51-48; trailed the Redskins 21-7, but won 45-21 with a 31-point fourth quarter; trailed 21-7 to the Chiefs in Arrowhead last weekend, but won 35-28; and trailed the Titans 21-10 Sunday before finally getting the pedal to the floor.
"We know what we have the capability and potential to do," Julius Thomas said. "All year we’ve been proving if we get things going we can be explosive and put points up on that scoreboard."
So, depending on which side of the half-full glass discourse you come down on it means the Broncos fast-lane work on offense can iron out their wrinkles or the reasons for those slow starts, especially those last two, are cause for at least a raised eyebrow if not some outright concern. A week ago in Kansas City it was two interceptions by Manning, a defense that couldn’t turn the Chiefs away following the mistakes and a 108-yard kickoff return by Kansas City’s Knile Davis that powered the Chiefs early.
Sunday it was two long drives by the Titans -- a five-play, 73-yard affair to go with an eight-play, 89-yard effort -- to go with a 95-yard kickoff return that led to a one-play scoring drive that had the Titans in front. An injury-riddled defense was also turned over a bit by defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who kept starters such as Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho on the sideline for much of the day.
Fox said following the game Woodyard was "rested a bit" because of a neck injury he suffered earlier this season, but both Woodyard and Ihenacho were used on special teams plenty as they watched Paris Lenon and Omar Bolden, respectively, play in their spots on defense. And while the final numbers won’t raise too many red flags overall -- 254 total yards for the Titans, 152 of those in the first half -- the starts are an issue as was the 24-point lead that got away against the Patriots.
"We took a look at some other guys a little bit [Sunday] to develop that throughout the rest of the season," Fox said. "We’re not satisfied at this point, there’s room for improvement and I’m not ashamed to say it."
The roster juggling on that side of the depth chart has leaked into the Broncos’ special teams units, which opened the season with two blocked punts and two touchdown returns by Trindon Holliday, who didn’t play Sunday because of a shoulder injury, in the season’s first month. Leon Washington’s 95-yard return in the first quarter put the Titans on the 3-yard line in the first quarter. The Broncos also had a 104-yard touchdown return by Andre Caldwell called back because of a penalty on rookie Kayvon Webster. It’s all part of the can-they-win-it-all tapestry wrapped around the Broncos these days.
"There's no exhaling," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "Just keep pushing and pushing each week."
"And we’re 11-2," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We know there are things we need to do better, and we will. But we’re 11-2, and that’s just a fact."