All season, Matt Prater has been an afterthought on a team that's rewriting the record books on the strength of Peyton Manning's passing arm.
Now, the Broncos kicker has his name next to one of the most hallowed NFL marks of all.
Prater booted a 64-yard field goal to highlight Denver's 51-28 victory over Tennessee on Sunday, brushing aside the mark of 63 yards that was first set by Tom Dempsey, the club-footed Saints kicker, all the way back in 1970.
"I knew I hit it pretty good, but I just wasn't sure with the cold and everything if it was going to make it," Prater said. "But when I saw the refs' hands go up, I can't even explain how I felt after."
Yes, it was cold — 18 degrees at kickoff. But on a day supposedly not well-suited for kicking or throwing, Manning joined Prater in merely laughing at the weather. Manning also sent a message in his own special way to the folks who've been questioning his ability to play when it's cold.
"I won't try to answer it because I didn't give it any validation in the first place," said the quarterback, who is 4-7 in games where the temperature is 32 or below at kickoff.
Manning completed a franchise-record 39 passes. His 59 attempts tied the Broncos mark. He finished with 397 yards and this marked his seventh four-touchdown game, most in NFL history in a season. By outscoring the Titans (5-8) 31-7 in the second half, the Broncos (11-2) wrapped up a playoff spot that was all but a foregone conclusion.
They still need wins to secure the AFC West and home-field advantage. But their last three opponents, starting Thursday with San Diego, have a combined record of 12-27. It will be an upset if the Broncos lose — or if Manning fails to break the single-season touchdowns record. He has 45 and needs six more.
Five things we learned from Denver's chilly victory over Tennessee:
IT'S NOT THE COLD: Manning is now 2-2 in cold games with the Broncos. The two victories came over Kansas City last year and Tennessee this year, teams with a combined .259 winning percentage. The two losses came to Baltimore, the eventual Super Bowl champions, in last season's playoffs and New England this year. The newest thought on Manning and the weather: It's more who he's going against than the conditions he's playing them in.
PLAYOFF CHATTER: The Titans are now playing to finish at .500. A playoff spot, however, is a very remote possibility. Though they got off to a wonderful start — a 57-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Justin Hunter on the game's fourth play set up an early touchdown — Tennessee couldn't sustain against a team with this much firepower. As a result, the Titans are closing in on their fifth straight season without a playoff appearance. "I'm not worrying about that," coach Mike Munchak said. "You're going to see us at our best the next three games."
WES WORRIES: Wes Welker took a blow to the head in the second quarter and left with a concussion. It's his second concussion in four games. With a short turnaround, it would be a surprise if he's ready for the Chargers. It's quite a loss, of course. Though he played only a half, Manning targeted him 10 times and he caught five passes for 61 yards and a touchdown.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD: The Broncos defense was unimpressive early, allowing big plays and three touchdowns over the first 23 minutes. In the end, however, Tennessee converted only two of nine third downs and ran only 48 plays, compared to 91 for the Broncos offense. And the Titans gained only 254 yards, the lowest total the Broncos have allowed all season. Meanwhile, special teams gave up a 95-yard return. But a day in which the kicker sets an NFL record almost has to be viewed as a good one.
BRIGHT FUTURE: Hunter, the Titans rookie second-round draft pick, caught four passes for 115 yards and a score. He has now surpassed the 100-yard mark twice in the last three games. It's a bright sign for an offense in desperate need of some playmakers — a need made that much more glaring on a day when Chris Johnson gained only 46 yards and averaged 3.8 per carry.
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