DENVER – When Peyton Manning lines up against the Tennessee Titans, he'll be keeping his eye on a handful of numbers:
— '99' is defensive tackle and sack specialist Jurrell Casey;
— '53' is the all-important 'Mike' linebacker, Moise Fokou;
— and '20' is cornerback Alterraun Verner, who leads the Titans with five interceptions.
But Manning's biggest challenge Sunday is overcoming another number: '14,' as in, the forecast high in Denver on Sunday.
"We'll handle it just like any other team has to," Manning said.
If only it were that simple.
Manning's less-than-stellar record in the cold — he's 8-11 when game-time temperature is 40 or below — has been Topic No. 1 in Denver this week. The Broncos (10-2) are heading into the homestretch of the season with the best record in the AFC, positioned for home-field advantage through the playoffs, with the Super Bowl in potentially frigid New York.
Granted, these icy temperatures in Denver aren't all that common — a point John Elway went out of his way to make when he was recruiting Manning to the Mile High City. In 54 seasons of pro football in Denver, only eight games have started with the temperature in the teens or below. One of them, of course, was last year's 13-degree playoff contest against Baltimore. A loss.
More recently, Manning and the Broncos fell at New England, where the wind chill was 6.
Manning was something less than his usual, impeccable self in both those games. His quarterback rating of 83.1 in the 19 cold-weather games he's played is about 14 points lower than in the other 237.
In preparation for the cold weather, Manning started experimenting with wearing gloves last season. The cold weather, combined with his multiple neck surgeries, causes a loss of feeling in his hands.
"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," he said.
Here are five things to look for when the Titans (5-7) visit chilly Denver:
COLD WEATHER: Manning threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against a woeful Kansas City team to close last season in his only other cold-weather game in Denver, proving that, indeed, he can produce, especially when the opponent doesn't put up much resistance. He's had the advantage of throwing in frigid practice conditions this week. The temperature won't crack 20 until next week. And he'll get another chance next Thursday, when the Broncos play their regular-season home finale against San Diego, with nighttime temperatures expected in the low 20s.
CLINGING TO HOPE: It figures one team with a record around .500 will grab the AFC's final playoff spot. The Titans are in that mix. They would be in better shape, of course, if they hadn't lost five games by a touchdown or less. "I feel like we've been given a lot of chances," running back Chris Johnson said. "I feel like we're working hard right now as a team and just trying to stick together and just trying to squeeze in."
FOX RETURNS: The Broncos welcomed back coach John Fox this week, four weeks after his surgery for aortic valve replacement. He said he's feeling fine and actually wanted to come back to work sooner. He was striding around the practice field, as usual, in the cold weather Thursday. Smart money, however, has him coaching from the booth in his return.
PUNCHING IT IN: About the best thing that could be said about Denver's 27th-ranked defense last week in a 35-28 win over the Chiefs is that it held them out of the end zone when it mattered most. Trailing by a touchdown, Kansas City drove 83 yards late in the fourth quarter and came up empty. The Chiefs also got shut out after a 77-yard drive in the first quarter.
Led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Titans are not a big-play offense. Johnson is their most consistent threat, though he averages only 3.8 yards a carry. In theory, grinding out first downs and chewing up the clock works well against Manning. But for Tennessee to have any chance of winning, it will have to improve on its 53.8 percent rate of scoring touchdowns when it gets inside the 20.
WHO'S THE RUNNER: Rookie Montee Ball had his breakout game for the Broncos last week: 13 carries, 117 yards and, most importantly, no fumbles. He still hasn't budged Knowshon Moreno — he of the emotional, pregame crying outburst — from the starting lineup and Moreno hasn't done anything to lose the job. While being held to only 15 yards rushing last week, he caught four passes for 72 yards.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow AP National Writer Eddie Pells on Twitter: http://twitter.com/epells