DENVER – The Denver Broncos' defense was supposed to be the one liability that might keep them from the Super Bowl. But defense is the reason Denver advanced to the AFC championship game.
The Broncos shut down the Chargers in a fairly easy 24-17 win at Sports Authority Field. The Chargers made it a little interesting at the end with 17 fourth-quarter points after Denver built a huge lead, but Peyton Manning hit Julius Thomas for two third-down conversions late in the game to help seal it.
For most of the game, the Broncos' defense starred. The Chargers had 45 yards in the first half. Philip Rivers had five completions for 20 yards before halftime, and his longest completion was for 7 yards. Rivers had just 44 yards through three quarters, and as a team the Chargers didn't break the 100-yard barrier until the fourth quarter. The Chargers scored a couple touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but both came with Denver holding a 17-point lead.
Denver is back in the AFC championship game for the first time since the end of the 2005 season, and what a title game it will be. New England will be coming to town for another matchup between Manning and Tom Brady, the fourth time the two quarterbacks have met in the playoffs. Brady's Patriots won two of three playoff meetings against Manning when he was with the Colts. This is the third time the two legendary quarterbacks have met in the AFC championship game, with each of them winning one.
The Chargers didn't do much, at least in the first three quarters, to keep that highly anticipated matchup from happening, putting forth a forgettable performance on Sunday. But give the Broncos credit for that.
Denver's pass rush was strong and the coverage didn't allow much for Rivers, at least until he rallied a bit in the fourth quarter. San Diego won at Denver in Week 15 by running the ball and controlling the clock, but did neither on Sunday.
Manning, who set NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns in the regular season, was as sharp as he needed to be. Touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker in the first half gave the Broncos a comfortable 14-0 lead.
Denver's defense lost outside linebacker Von Miller to an ACL injury late in the season, but still played well in its final two regular-season games. But that came against Houston and Oakland, which wasn't much of a measuring stick. The performance against San Diego was a bit more convincing.
A strong wind that howled through the game affected San Diego's passing game. Ryan Mathews, who was a huge part of San Diego's offense down the stretch, was limited with an ankle injury. Those things didn't help the Chargers, but the Broncos played very well.
Denver is a step away from the Super Bowl, and get ready to hear a lot about Brady and Manning before the Broncos and Patriots square off on Sunday. Just don't forget about the Broncos' defense in that matchup. They looked surprisingly good on Sunday.
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