The Denver Broncos are 11-2 and are in prime position to clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed.
As long as the Broncos win their remaining three games, they will be the AFC's No. 1 seed. A large reason why the Broncos are in this position is due to the superb play of Peyton Manning.
Manning is having the greatest season of his career—perhaps the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history—his 45 touchdowns and 4522 yards lead the NFL. Peyton is on pace to break single-season records in both of the aforementioned categories.
The perfect sample for how Manning's 2013 season has played out was demonstrated in Denver's 51-28 victory over the Tennesee Titans in Week 14. The four-time NFL MVP threw the football 59 times, completing 39 of them, while completing four touchdown passes and throwing for 397 yards.
The Broncos were down 21-10 at one point—nothing new for the Broncos, who have trailed 21-7 to the Chiefs in Week 13, 21-7 to the Redskins in Week 8 and 14-0 to the Cowboys in Week 6 before rallying for victories in all three games—before Manning led the Broncos to 24 consecutive points en route to a blowout victory.
More importantly, Manning hushed his critics—his cold-weather critics that is—by having one of the best games of his 2013 NFL season in 14-degree weather.
Peyton had this to say about his cold-weather critics to Denver's KOA-AM following the victory, via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com:
"Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don't shine. I felt pretty good out there today."
Later on, Manning explained his shot at critics, via The Denver Post: "I mean, I wasn't trying to answer (the criticism), because I didn't give it any validation in the first place."
Peyton was clearly bothered by the criticism over his play in cold temperatures. He was seemingly on a mission from the opening whistle until the end of the game to prove his detractors wrong—he threw 59 passes, a career-high.
Manning could not have played any better in Denver's victory over Tennessee. He was flawless.
And it still doesn't matter.
Peyton can have all of the excellent games he wants versus teams such as the 5-8 Titans. It's been the story and narrative of his career—the ultimate regular season quarterback. Games like the one Manning had versus Tennessee in Week 14 have been a normal occurrence throughout Manning's 15-year career.
But it won't matter until he can do it when it truly matters—in the postseason.
That won't be enough, either. He'll have to do it in the postseason and the Super Bowl, where the weather is likely to be frigid—the weakness that all of the critics have been keying in on since Denver's 34-31 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 12.
Manning is the most dominant quarterback of all time. It's only fitting he's on his way to having the most dominant single season by a quarterback in NFL history. He started out the season throwing for 20 touchdowns with zero interceptions—an NFL record. He has led the Broncos to 515 points through 13 games—yet another NFL record.
He is a four-time MVP winner. He will win his fifth such award in 2013. No other player in NFL history has won more than three.
This is what happens when you set the bar so high like Manning has throughout his career—there is no quarterback who has ever controlled a game the way Manning can and has.
People wonder why there was any cold-weather criticism to begin with following Manning's performance versus the Titans. Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton shared that opinion following the Broncos' victory, via Joan Niesen of The Denver Post:
"They'll find something (to talk about). They'll probably say, well, he's not good ... below zero or something. They'll find something, but I consider us a weatherproof team, and he's a Super Bowl champ. We're not really worried about that. We'll play anywhere, any weather, any conditions."
The reason why is nobody will remember games like the one Manning had versus the Titans in Week 14—they'll remember his subpar performance versus the Patriots in Week 12, which saw the Broncos blow a 24-0 lead in a 34-31 loss.
They will remember Manning's game-losing interception in double overtime versus the Ravens in last year's divisional playoff, which led to the Ravens defeating the Broncos. Peyton had three turnovers in that game.
People will think back to the AFC Championship game following the 2003 season, which saw Peyton have the worst game of his NFL career, when he threw four interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his passes versus the Patriots.
It's not just that Manning's struggles in the cold weather are actual fact—it is. He is now 2-8 in games where the temperature is 30 degrees or lower after Sunday's victory. The chatter over Manning's struggles in the cold weather go hand-in-hand with his struggles in the postseason.
|Manning's Record in Cold-Weather Games|
|Record (Kickoff temperature 32 degrees or less)||Stats|
|3-7 overall record||15 TDs, 11 INTs, 215-240, 60%|
|1-3 vs. Patriots||5 TDs, 7 INTs, 89-161, 55%|
|0-3 in Postseason||4 TDs, 7 INTs, 78-132, 59%|
|pro-football-reference and profootballtalk|
It's science. The weather gets colder in January. The postseason is played in January. Manning's play regresses in the cold weather. His play regresses in the postseason in comparison to his dominant play in the regular season. Peyton is 9-11 in the postseason.
Obviously, the pressure increases as the postseason starts. Every game starts to matter. There is no room for mistakes.
This is why Manning's performance in Week 14 means nothing in the grand scheme of things. He didn't do it in the postseason, he didn't do it in a truly meaningful game versus a team that has historically caused him trouble—he did it versus the 5-8 Titans.
That's the story of Manning's career, right?
Blow out and dominate the competition when the spotlight isn't on. Excel in the regular season. Perform perfectly versus opponents who show no resistance.
The Titans showed zero resistance. They didn't mix up their defensive packages. They didn't mix in blitzes. They continued sending four guys at Manning in base packages.
If you play with that type of style and mentality versus the most skilled quarterback of all time, you'll get eaten alive. The Titans found that out the hard way.
But what happens when Manning is out of his comfort zone? What happens when he has to face a team such as the Patriots, who have historically caused him problems in the past? How will Manning respond when the game doesn't go his way? When he's pressured and hit by defenders, the exact opposite of what happened in the Broncos' 51-28 victory over the Titans?
Those are the questions Manning needs to answer. Those are the same questions that he has answered with underwhelming results throughout his career.
What did Manning answer on Sunday?
We know Manning excels in the regular season. His four MVP awards and nine 12-plus winning seasons attest to that.
The question is, will he be able to excel in these types of conditions in the postseason? What about the Super Bowl?
Peyton's cold-weather struggles are synonymous with his struggles in the postseason.
Those questions weren't answered in Week 14 versus a below .500 team such as the Titans.
They can only be answered in January—when the weather is cold, while the pressure is on, and every game matters.