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NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
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.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
Denver Broncos coach John Fox will be on the sidelines Sunday when the Broncos play the Tennessee Titans, Fox said on Friday.
Fox, who returned to active duty as head coach on Monday after missing nearly a month following aortic heart valve replacement surgery on Nov. 4, had said earlier in the week he was not sure whether he would be on the sidelines or in the press box for Sunday's game.
Fox ended that uncertainty by declaring he would occupy his customary spot on the sidelines.
"I feel really good about where I'm at physically and all that-so do the medical people," Fox said Friday. "That's why we've made that decision. Basically got really three good days: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday."
The Broncos went 3-1 under interim head coach Jack Del Rio.
--Cornerback Champ Bailey's return to the starting lineup in Kansas City last week did not see him immediately return to a full workload. He played just 30 of 72 possible snaps and was standing on the sideline with his helmet off during the Chiefs' attempt at a game-tying drive.
Coach John Fox wouldn't commit Friday to Bailey playing against the Tennessee on Sunday.
"I think I got to the point where I knew I needed to shut it down. That was the decision we made and we lived with it," Bailey said of the Chiefs game.
But the intention was not to have the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback play extensively in his first game after missing the previous four games with a sprained foot that he initially suffered Aug. 17 and aggravated on Oct. 20 at Indianapolis, his second game back from the injury after missing Weeks 1-5.
His foot is better, but it won't be 100 percent this season.
"I guarantee that won't happen," he said. "I know I won't be. That is something I'll have to live with. I can't remember a year that I've been 100 percent healthy. It is just another thing to deal with."
But Bailey does not believe the injury will require offseason surgery.
"It is a thing that has healed pretty good," he said. "I'm just not confident in it yet. That's pretty much what it boils down to."
--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."
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: "I don't know the total; I've only been around him two years. The thing that probably p---es me off more than anything, is the fact that I don't want anybody else as my quarterback. And I'm going to go in with him every Sunday, and it's a great feeling to have. When you've got him back there, you know that your chances of winning are pretty good. And when you don't have a guy like that -- and I've been in that spot a lot, and it sucks. You know (that) you walk in there, and you don't have a shot. So I'll take him any day of the week." -- Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, on the notion that quarterback Peyton Manning struggles in cold weather
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Peyton Manning returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's work. He has not practiced on a Wednesday since Oct. 20. He is expected to play against the Titans.
--CB Champ Bailey practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday. He played his first game since Week 7 last Sunday and expects to play again this week.
--DL Derek Wolfe did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He was hospitalized over the weekend after suffering what was later called "seizure-like symptoms." Wolfe is still being evaluated to determine the cause of the symptoms. No timetable for his return has been set.
--DL Malik Jackson was limited in practice Wednesday with a knee problem, but had a full practice of work Thursday. Jackson is being counted upon to fill the void created by the injury to Wolfe.
--TE Julius Thomas practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but had a full practice of work Thursday. He has missed the last two games with a knee injury. Until Thursday, all of his work had been limited.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday did not practice Wednesday or Thursday injuring his shoulder against Kansas City on Sunday.
--TE Joel Dreessen did not practice Wednesday, but like Manning, he has been held out of Wednesday practices frequently this season. He returned to the field Thursday. Dreessen had two knee surgeries this summer, leading to the Broncos' mid-week caution.
--RB Knowshon Moreno saw limited work in Wednesday's practice but was upgraded to full work Thursday. Moreno bruised his ankle against New England, but played a week later at Kansas City.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but returned to full work Thursday. He injured his shoulder on the final play before halftime against New England and was inactive at Kansas City.
--WR Demaryius Thomas practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday, 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.
--WR Wes Welker needs just one touchdown to set a new career scoring high, but is on pace for 92 receptions, which would mark just his second sub-100-catch season in the last six years. Welker has become more of a red-zone threat than in recent years, but has seen fewer overall targets as Peyton Manning has effectively spread around the football.
--CB Chris Harris has played more than any Broncos defensive back this season, as injuries have worn down the secondary all year. Harris has 58 total tackles; no other Broncos cornerback has more than 29.
--DT Terrance Knighton did not see his workload increase with the season-ending hip injury to defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. The biggest issue, he noted, is the communication between him and replacement defensive tackles Mitch Unrein and Sylvester Williams. Knighton said the communication between himself and Vickerson took place without words, and that it will "take time" for a similar level of communication with him and Unrein and Williams.
--RG Louis Vasquez continues to keep a clean sheet against opposing pass rushers. The free-agent pickup is the only member of the Broncos' starting offensive line who has yet to allow a sack this season.
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.