Broncos clinch AFC West title

The SportsXchange

DENVER - It took some unconventional methods for the Denver Broncos to take the easy route back to the NFL playoffs. And they have about 72 hours to enjoy their second straight AFC West title.

Peyton Manning threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns (one to defensive lineman Mitch Unrein), Von Miller returned an interception for his first NFL touchdown, and the Denver Broncos held on for a 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

Demaryius Thomas had eight catches for 99 yards and two scores, and Jacob Tamme caught nine passes for 89 yards for the Broncos (9-3), who have won seven straight.

Denver is assured of at least one home playoff game, and it stayed in the race for a first-round postseason bye.

"Winning the division, that was one of our goals," Manning said. "Not a whole lot of time to think about it with a game on Thursday."

The surging Broncos' last loss was two months ago at New England, one of the two teams they're battling for the second seed and a bye. The Patriots are also 9-3 but hold the tiebreaker over the Broncos with their 31-21 win on Oct. 7.

For Denver to keep pace, they'll have to celebrate quickly before going to Oakland to face the Raiders on Thursday.

"Anytime you win I enjoy it for a minute," Broncos coach John Fox said. "At least a few minutes tonight, then we turn it around and get right back at it the next day so that part won't change. It'll be business as usual."

Tampa Bay (6-6) was eliminated from the NFC South race. The Buccaneers are a game behind Seattle for the final wild card spot in the NFC.

"We're still looking at it as a one-game season," receiver Mike Williams said. "We're going to try to do our part and try to get a couple of wins and see what happens after that."

Manning celebrated the division title with another record-setting day. He went 27-for-38 with an interception, and he moved past Dan Marino and into second place in career NFL completions with 4,986 after Sunday's performance. Brett Favre tops the list with 6,300.

Manning has 29 touchdown passes, breaking the single-season franchise record of 27, previously held by John Elway (1997) and Jake Plummer (2004).

Buccaneers running back Doug Martin, who entered Sunday fourth in the NFL in rushing, had 18 carries for 56 yards -- and just 8 yards in the second half. Josh Freeman went 18-for-39 for 242 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

He was held in check before throwing for 95 yards and a score in the fourth quarter.

"It was a tough day for a stretch," Freeman said. "You have to find a way to make plays."

Manning wasn't faring much better early on. The Buccaneers kept Denver's offense down for more than a half, holding Manning to 108 yards passing in the first two quarters before he broke out in the third quarter.

Two quick passes moved the Broncos from their own 48 to the Tampa Bay 24. After a pass-interference call on cornerback Leonard Johnson -- Tampa Bay's third penalty in the secondary -- Manning found Thomas in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.

"I threw that super early and Demaryius came around the DB and made a heck of a catch," Manning said. "They blitzed, and that was the route for him to do, but there was a guy coming free so you had to throw it early. He did a heck of a job of making the catch."

After a Tampa Bay punt, Manning capped a seven-play, 57-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Thomas.

Miller made it 28-10 when he stepped in front of Freeman's pass in the flat on the Buccaneers' ensuing drive and returned it 26 yards for the score. It was Miller's first career interception. He also had a sack that forced a fumble in the fourth quarter.

"When we get hit and throw the pick-six, that changes the complexion of the game," Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano said. "Now we're not able to run the football."

Tampa Bay's Connor Barth kicked field goals of 50 and 55 yards in the fourth. Denver kicker Matt Prater nailed a 31-yarder midway through the final quarter, but he subsequently missed a 47-yard attempt that left the door open for the Buccaneers.

Freeman connected with Williams for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 2:33 remaining. The Buccaneers tried an onside kick that wide receiver Eric Decker recovered for Denver.

"That's the thing about us, we've got a lot of fighters on this team," Martin said.

The Broncos scored first with help from the Tampa Bay defense. The Buccaneers had two penalties in the defensive backfield, one for pass interference on Ronde Barber on a third-and-8 that gave Denver a first down at the Tampa Bay 18.

After Knowshon Moreno ran 12 yards to the 1, Manning connected with Unrein, who reported as an eligible receiver, to make it 7-0.

"We've worked on that play since the start of the season. It could have gone to any of the defensive linemen," Unrein said. "My biggest worry was to hold on. There was a lot of pressure to catch the ball."

Tampa Bay responded with a nine-play, 66-yard drive that resulted in a 31-yard Barth field goal. After a three-and-out by Denver, the Buccaneers struck again.

Freeman hit Williams on a post pattern for a 40-yard gain to the Broncos' 23. Two runs by Martin gave Tampa Bay a first down at the 11. Freeman then found a sliding Dallas Clark, who made a basket catch in the end zone to give the Buccaneers a 10-7 lead.

NOTES: The Buccaneers had 11 penalties for 80 yards. In their previous three games combined they were flagged for 12 penalties. ... Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard (ankle) left the game in the third quarter and did not return. ... Freeman had an interception wiped away when Miller was called for roughing the passer in the second quarter. ... Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley (hip, wrist) was inactive. ... Denver defensive end Robert Ayers was inactive due to the death of his father. Ayers did not practice all week. ... Unrein left the game briefly after getting poked in the eye but returned before halftime. ... Miller's second-half sack was the only sack of the game.
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