Titans-Broncos: What we learned
DENVER -- Quarterback Peyton Manning gave the boot to concerns over his cold-weather play, and kicker Matt Prater's leg provided the exclamation point.
Prater set an NFL record with a 64-yard field goal, and Manning led a go-ahead, 24-point blitz after Denver fell behind early as the Broncos rallied past the Tennessee Titans 51-28 on an icy Sunday.
"He's been playing great his entire career, and to come out there and put 50 points on the board, it kind of put the cold thing down," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said of Manning, who completed 39 of 59 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Manning's performances in the cold came under scrutiny because the 37-year-old veteran entered the day with an 8-11 career record in games played with a temperature of 40 or below. At kickoff Sunday, it was 18 degrees, but Manning certainly quieted the concerns.
"I wasn't trying to answer it because I didn't give it validation in the first place," Manning said. "We had a good plan, and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well."
The victory in coach John Fox's return to the sideline allowed the Broncos (11-2) to clinch a playoff berth and remain undefeated at home. Fox missed the previous month after undergoing heart valve replacement surgery.
"It's great to be back," Fox said. "I really forgot how fun that was."
Manning helped make it so with four scoring passes: 1 yard to wide receiver Wes Welker, 8 yards to Julius Thomas, 4 yards to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and 20 yards to wide receiver Eric Decker (eight catches 117 yards).
Welker suffered a concussion before halftime and did not return to action. He took a hit to the head when he dived for a pass as safety Bernard Pollard came in to break up the play.
Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 172 yards on 13-of-24 passing. He connected on a 41-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Justin Hunter and a 57-yard completion to Hunter that set up another score. Hunter finished with four catches for 114 yards.
After forcing a Tennessee punt, the Broncos got the ball on their 29-yard line back with 31 seconds left in the second quarter and no timeouts. Manning completed passes to Demaryius Thomas and tight end Jacob Tamme, with Tamme getting out of bounds at the Tennessee 46 to stop the clock with three seconds remaining.
Fox then sent Prater onto the field.
Taking dead aim on history, Prater got plenty of leg into the kick and sent it right on course, and the ball narrowly cleared the crossbar, pulling the Broncos within 21-20 as time expired in the first half.
"I knew I hit it pretty good, but I wasn't sure with the cold and everything if it was going to get there," Prater said. "I saw the ref's hands go up and I can't even explain what I felt after."
The kick eclipsed the previous field-goal record of 63 yards, originally set by the New Orleans Saints' Tom Dempsey against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 8, 1970, and matched on three other occasions, most recently by the San Francisco 49ers' David Akers against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 9, 2012.
"It was awesome, because the whole team almost rushed the field after the kick," Prater said. "It was definitely a momentum swing."
What the Titans said
"That was tough. We did not want that to happen obviously. Coming out of the half, they got the ball again. That was a swing. It certainly did not sway the outcome of the game. We still felt confident at halftime and we thought we could continue to run our offense like we had in the first half. It got away from us a little bit." -- Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
What the Broncos said
"That's our goal, but our goal is still to win the division and obviously, get the best seed we can. Our biggest goal is to get to the 'big game' (Super Bowl) and win the big game." -- Coach John Fox.
What we learned about the Titans
1. Losing for the fourth time in five games, the Titans were eliminated from the AFC South title chase but remain alive -- barely -- for a wild-card berth. Coach Mike Munchak said he's confident Titans will muster their best shot over the final three weeks of the season in hopes of a turnaround.
2. Fifth-year wide receiver Kenny Britt, a former starter who has been fighting through a prolonged slump, was a healthy scratch from the game, landing on the team's inactive list. Coach Mike Munchak said he deactivated Britt because the team needed an additional defensive back to help cover the Broncos' three receiver sets. In addition, the Titans needed at catches for 67 yards.
What we learned about the Broncos
1. Peyton Manning put his cold weather critics on ice. The Denver Broncos quarterback, who took some criticism this week over his losing record in cold weather games (8-11), delivered one of his best performances in 18-degree weather at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday. He had a team-record 39 completions, throwing for 397 yards and four touchdowns. Manning was the first quarterback in nine years to throw for at least four touchdowns in game conditions of 20 degrees or less. And he helped the Broncos clinch their 20th postseason berth.
2. On top of becoming the first team in NFL history with four players scoring at least 10 touchdowns in a season, the Broncos also have an ace up their sleeve in place-kicker Matt Prater. He helped the Broncos top 50 points for the third time this season by kicking three field goals, including an NFL record 64-yarder just before halftime that gave Denver a huge momentum boost. There's nothing like having a clutch kicker in a crunch-time situation, especially in the playoffs.