DENVER -- The temperature kept plunging through the teens. The wind chill kept diving towards zero -- and eventually went under.
Certain animals thrive in these conditions. Emperor penguins. Walruses. And, until Sunday, naysayers over the Broncos' cold-weather capabilities. They howled like Arctic wolves.
You're not supposed to have an effective offense in the cold. At least not with Peyton Manning at the controls. The future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, who played the first 14 seasons of his career for a team whose home games were in a dome or under a retractable roof.
But the same Peyton Manning came to Denver 11 years ago and led the Colts on game-tying and game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, claiming a 27-24 win on a snow-swept night. He also threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns as the mercury plunged toward single digits in last January's playoff loss.
In the run-up to Sunday, Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase took a question about Manning's cold-weather capability personally. He snapped back with a direct response that found its way onto one newscast after another. And he could hardly be blamed for it; mentally, he's armed to the maximum with facts and data. He knew better. He knew that for a passing game, it wasn't about temperature, but the wind speed.
And he knew that unlike the Nov. 24 loss at New England, when gale-force gusts hit Gillette Stadium, that the conditions Sunday would be placid by comparison. Breezes were light. And Manning was vintage: he beat the Titans with an array of short passes, then burnt them downfield:
Manning's tosses to the sideline had the zip they needed. Only one pass had a chance of being intercepted, and he ended with 39 completions -- the second-most of his career and the most in Broncos history. It looked like the Manning of warmer days when the Broncos played the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Chiefs and others. Only the heaters on the bench and parkas on everyone in sight revealed anything different.
Manning didn't want to talk about the cold weather after the game -- "I wasn’t trying to answer (the question), because I didn’t give it validation in the first place," he said. He didn't have to talk about it. His performance provided the answer to anyone who had any lingering questions.
There's something else you're not supposed to do in the cold: hit 64-yard field goals.
The "K" balls used for placekicks, already segregated from the rest of their leather-bound brethren so they can't be doctored, take on the consistency of concrete blocks in extreme cold, or so it's been said. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly was not comfortable, and Matt Prater admitted that he didn't even test his leg beyond 61 yards pregame.
"It was so cold I didn't think we would kick one that far," he said. "I went back to I think 61 maybe."
"Tamme told me after the game I owe him because he went out perfectly to make it a 64-yarder," Prater said, "so he told him I owe him a steak or something."
Befitting the conditions, perhaps caribou would be more appropriate. With a thud, Prater's foot struck the football -- effectively a frozen leather block.
"But by that time, my foot was numb, so I couldn't really tell," he said.
After that once-in-a-lifetime kick drew the Broncos within 21-20 at halftime, Manning resumed his work, soaring toward a performance that was as beautiful as any finely chiseled ice sculpture.
And with that, the Broncos checked off their first goal Sunday: they qualified for the playoffs. If they cross other items off their task list, they'll have to hear the cold-weather critiques again, even though they looked more comfortable in the chill than a pack of polar bears.
"They'll find something. They'll probably say, 'Well, he's not good below zero.' They'll find something," said defensive tackle
"But I consider ourselves a weatherproof team."