KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Only one week ago, as the Denver Broncos headed into a frigid Foxborough night, the hand-wringing was especially white-knuckled. The Broncos had lost to the New England Patriots and some of Peyton Manning's passes had fluttered in a stiff wind as Denver's championship prospects, once as golden as the summer sun, now seemed to have chilled as quickly as the weather.
For a week, Manning's arm strength was measured from a distance, the wind and the cold reigniting a constant source of fascination since the neck surgeries that cost Manning a full season. But on a temperate Sunday afternoon, with a warming sun setting into a still evening, Manning and the Broncos rewrote the worrisome narrative, at least until the next cold front moves in. With each of his passes to Eric Decker -- deep and true -- Manning made a mockery of whatever physical limitations others have claimed to see in him, and moved the Broncos closer to their goal: to play again in January and maybe February in the very cold weather. The Broncos' 35-28 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs went a long way toward accomplishing that.
In sweeping Kansas City, the Broncos (10-2) tightened their grip on the AFC West lead, and likely consigned the Chiefs, who have now lost three in a row, to the AFC's first wild-card spot. The Broncos' schedule eases considerably now -- they have Tennessee and San Diego at home, and Houston and Oakland on the road, none of whom have winning records -- which will be critical, as Denver might need to win out to stay ahead of the Patriots (9-3) for the first overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
But the victory did something more: It at least briefly punctured the reputation that has sprung up around Manning since he arrived in Denver, that he no longer is able to throw deep with precision and reliability. His arm failed him for parts of the game against New England, but except for one ugly throw Sunday -- heaved to the right sideline with pressure in his face and his weight on his back foot, resulting in one of his two interceptions -- Manning looked much more like the quarterback who dominated the first half of the season. He threw for 403 yards and five touchdowns and perhaps of most interest, he repeatedly placed longer passes exactly where they needed to be, most often over one of Decker's shoulders. Decker, who caught only one pass in New England, had eight catches for 174 yards and wound up in the end zone on four of Manning's touchdown throws. And Manning was 8 of 10 on passes of 15 yards or more.
"I take satisfaction when we score touchdowns. I don't measure the length of the throws," said Manning, who explained that the Broncos thought they had chances to go downfield in their first game against the Chiefs two weeks ago and did not get to it. "I know it's a hot debate -- the distance, RPMs, whatever it is. I enjoy it when they go for touchdowns."
They did, over and over. The victory completes a particularly trying time for the Broncos. In playing the Chiefs twice, sandwiching the Patriots game, the Broncos endured what might have been their most critical stretch of games this season, and all of it without coach John Fox, who has been absent since having a heart valve replaced during the team's bye week one month ago. Fox is expected to return to work this week, taking back the reins from Jack Del Rio, who guided the Broncos to a 3-1 record as the interim head coach.
After the dispiriting loss to the Patriots, the Broncos had to rebound against a Chiefs team that attacked early on offense, belying their reputation for playing a safe, contained passing game. Instead, quarterback Alex Smith came out firing downfield, and the Broncos, who had lost four defensive starters since the teams played two weeks ago, were gashed quickly. The Chiefs, who were unable to sack Manning in their two games, intercepted him twice and followed both with touchdown drives. Plus, they got the kind of extra score they had used early in the season when they began 9-0. After the Broncos tied the score 7-7 at the start of the second quarter (on a 41-yard pass down the deep middle to Decker), the Chiefs' Knile Davis sped through the kickoff return for a 108-yard touchdown.
But a 21-7 Chiefs lead never really felt like much, because it came so early in the second quarter. And from there, the deluge began. The Broncos scored 28 unanswered points to seize the lead, with Manning going to Decker frequently in part because Demaryius Thomas hurt his shoulder early in the game, Wes Welker was often double-teamed and the Chiefs had rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper on Decker.
The Chiefs mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally, but they were undone by a series of drops by their receivers. Kansas City's offense is not built for aggressive passing, but Smith showed, with a series of deeper throws, that in the playoffs, the Chiefs might be a more difficult offense to stop than their statistics indicate, if only their receivers can hold on to the ball. They fell short Sunday -- a potential game-tying drive stopped at the Broncos' 13-yard line -- but their first-round playoff opponent probably won't view Smith as the game manager so many believe he is.
"We can do better there," Andy Reid said. "It's important that when you're given the opportunity to catch it, you have to catch it."
With most of the AFC playoff teams already apparent with one month remaining, the Chiefs have time to recover from a series of losses that could now tag them as pretenders. The Broncos are in a better position, but as winter deepens, the focus on them will intensify again. Manning wore only one glove Sunday, rather than the two he wore in New England. With each drop in the temperature, his attire, his comfort level, his physiology will be scrutinized. Manning smiled at the questions about his deep throws Sunday. It was only a warmup for the cold glare of the playoffs.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.