The puffs of icy breath were visible all the way into the upper decks. Peyton Manning's play calls were clouds, breath, breath, breath, snap.

This was supposed to be his downfall, this crisp, clear cold weather, the kind that'll freeze a foot — cleat, sock and all — upon contact with the frozen turf.

This was supposed to be Manning's Achilles' heel, the only thing that could calcify the arm of a generation's greatest quarterback.

Supposed to be, but don't tell Manning.

The quarterback who's supposed to shrink at the thought of freezing weather instead led the Broncos to a 51-28 home victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday with a barrage of passes that sliced through the 18-degree (and dropping) air, silencing criticism and paving what should be a clear path to his fifth MVP award and a postseason run.

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Sunday was the first step in that process as the Broncos clinched a playoff berth. It was a mere technicality to be crossed off their to-do list with three games to go, but it was also the next step toward holding onto the AFC's best record and a No. 1 seed, which the Broncos (11-2) own by one game over New England. With the New England Patriots' miracle victory over Cleveland earlier in the day, keeping that spot was in Manning's gloved hands, and he delivered, with 397 yards passing and four touchdowns.

“He did a superb job,” coach John Fox said. “I think our team did a superb job of getting ready for those elements. ... Thursday, Friday and Saturday were pretty frigid, and I thought it was great for us.”

Granted, the game wasn't as easy as the final score might indicate.

It started out with seemingly everything breaking against Denver, from a Bronco-on-Bronco injury to a drive in which first Eric Decker then Wes Welker fell splat on the rock-hard ground with what appeared to be touchdown passes — except, of course, that replays said otherwise.

For the second game in a row, Denver dug itself a hole, this one a 21-10 deficit with 6:58 remaining in the first half. For the second consecutive Sunday, it looked like a lesser team might have the Broncos' number.

Then Manning took over, just as he did the previous weekend in Kansas City, although this time the mercury wasn't hovering around 50 degrees.

Peyton Manning, in the cold, successful? What is this, madness?

No, it's Manning having his way. In his four cold-weather games wearing a glove as a Bronco, the offense has scored 38, 35, 31 and 51 points. In other words, all the chatter about Manning not being able to function in the cold is just that, chatter. It's just that this is Manning's first cold-weather victory since 2012, and he's only 2-2 as a Bronco with a glove, but even so, Sunday should end the questioning for now. Manning, for one, is finished with it.

“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove it where the sun don't shine,” he told Denver radio station 850 KOA in an interview after the game.

In his postgame news conference, Manning was a bit softer in his denouncement.

“I mean, I wasn't trying to answer (the criticism), because I didn't give it any validation in the first place,” he said. “We had a good plan, and ... guys caught the ball well.”

Not only did Manning lead the Broncos to victory, he also continued his record-setting clip. With Welker's first-quarter reception, the team became the first to have four players with at least 10 touchdowns apiece in a single season, and it tied the mark set by Manning's 2004 Colts by having three receivers with at least 10 each.

This is territory where only Manning has ventured, and he's doing it again at 37, en route to what he hopes will be a second Super Bowl ring.Add in Manning's four touchdown passes, leaving him with 45 for the season, and Tom Brady's single-season record of 50 is in looming with three games left.

After Sunday, there's no doubt that it'll take more than a cold snap to get in the way of history. The Broncos are done with that distraction.

“They'll find something (to talk about),” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “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.”

No one should be surprised by what Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase finagled Sunday. They learned their lesson the hard way at New England two weeks ago, that conservative play-calling just doesn't work, especially when their defense is as porous as this makeshift unit has become. Plus, Manning was clearly agitated with all the talk of his cold-weather troubles, so he ended it, simple as that.

After weeks of talking about Manning in the cold and how Mother Nature might conspire to rob Denver, Sunday's game solidified the notion that the conversation needs to shift. As the score bobbed upwards, it was the Broncos' defense, not Manning's arm, that likely gave Broncos' fans cause for concern.

When a quarterback is on pace to shatter NFL records, he can only be an asset.

“Whatever it takes, he's going to execute and put the ball where it needs to be,” said tight end Julius Thomas, who caught his 11th touchdown pass of the season Sunday.

Manning is going to dazzle, even when his calls hang heavy in the air like smoke. Whether the rest of his team can follow suit remains to be seen, but on Sunday, Manning made his statement, as amazing to Denver as it was terrifying to the rest of the NFL.