ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ever since returning from his heart operation last month, Denver Broncos coach John Fox seems like a new man. More pep in his step, more color in his face, more boom in his voice.
Even more gumption in his calls.
Like having his offense go for it on fourth down — in the first quarter. And sending in Matt Prater for a 64-yard field goal attempt on an icy afternoon in Denver.
Or ordering his high-powered offense not to milk the clock with a big lead at Houston, where Peyton Manning broke Tom Brady's single-season touchdown record with a late score to cap a 37-13 rout.
Could this be the same man who had Manning take a knee with three timeouts and 31 seconds remaining in regulation in the playoff game last year after Baltimore's Jacoby Jones' 70-yard game-tying TD catch?
Has Fox turned in his conservative credentials?
While Fox said his health scare did cause him to re-evaluate some things, he insists it didn't have a profound effect on his approach to his job.
"Not really. I think it's just kind of a blip," said Fox, who missed four games before returning to the sideline six weeks ago. "It's like an injury to a player. When you come back, you hope you're the same player again. So, I just look at it as a setback."
Fox, with deep defensive roots in the Chuck Knoll coaching tree, just presided over the highest-scoring team in the Super Bowl era, one in which Manning set a slew of records, most notably single-season marks with 55 TD passes and 5,447 yards through the air.
"I mean, shoot, we broke just about every offensive record known to man. I don't know that that's because I've become more of an aggressive coach. I think it's because I've got a lot better offense, all right?" Fox said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Teams I've had in the past, we were a lot more defensive minded, more Baltimore Ravens-ish when they won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer. We almost won a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme. But we were more of a defensive-oriented team.
"You can call it conservative, you can call it aggressive, you can put any word you want on it. The reality is as a coach you're doing the things you feel necessary to put your team in the best position to win."
In his first game back, against Tennessee, Fox chose to coach from the sideline rather than the booth. He sent Prater out for a record-breaking 64-yard field goal in 14-degree weather on the last play of the first half.
Fox briefly thought about how Auburn's Chris Davis had returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown on the final play a few days earlier to end Alabama's bid for a third straight national championship.
"That was a concern," Fox admitted. "But he nailed it."
Prater's kick barely sailed over the crossbar, breaking the record by a yard, and pulled the Broncos to within 21-20 at the break, giving them the momentum they needed for a second-half onslaught in a 51-28 win.
Following a 27-20 loss at home to San Diego — Denver's opponent Sunday in the AFC divisional round — the Broncos traveled to Houston, where Fox went for it on fourth-and-3 from the Houston 28 on Denver's second series with a 3-0 lead.
Julius Thomas hauled in Manning's pass but was tackled a yard short of the first down, Denver's only fourth-down failure in nine tries this season. The Broncos (13-3) led the NFL with an 88 percent conversion rate on fourth downs this season.
After a slow start that afternoon, Manning warmed up and threw three TD passes, tying Brady's mark of 50 set in 2007. When Denver got the ball back at midfield with five minutes remaining, offensive coordinator Adam Gase got his orders from Fox, approached his quarterback on the sideline and said, "Hey, he wants us to play ball."
Four plays later, Manning hit Thomas for a 25-yard TD pass that broke Brady's record.
"We didn't take the air out and we weren't going to just line up in 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends) and stumble through the end of the game," Fox said this week. "We just kept playing. You look at that wild-card game the other day, it was 38-10. So, you don't take the foot off the pedal. If you do, you can get bit. I've just seen it too much. Now, if you don't have that ability, you ain't doing that. But if you have that ability, you are.
"The game's never over until it's over."