Manning, Broncos top Chargers, make AFC title game

ARNIE STAPLETON (AP Pro Football Writer)
The Associated Press
Peyton Manning very good at second chances
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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter of an NFL AFC division playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

DENVER (AP) -- Peyton Manning took a knee again, just as he had at the end of regulation exactly a year earlier.

Only this time, he trotted off to cheers, high-fives and smiles.

Manning welcomed Wes Welker back into the lineup with a touchdown toss Sunday and the Denver Broncos narrowly avoided a repeat of their playoff slip from last year, advancing to the AFC championship game with a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers.

The Broncos (14-3) took a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore's shocking win 38-35 win in double overtime at Denver.

On that night, Jacoby Jones hauled in a 70-yard pass from Joe Flacco to tie it and Denver coach John Fox had Manning take a knee so the Broncos could regroup in overtime.

This time, Manning rescued the Broncos from the brink of another crushing collapse and sent them into the title game for the first time in eight seasons.

They'll host the New England Patriots (13-4) on Sunday.

Get ready for Brady vs. Manning once more.

In the most recent matchup of QBs with Hall of Fame credentials, Tom Brady and the Patriots rallied past Manning and the visiting Broncos 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24.

''That's two of the greats,'' Eric Decker said. ''It's going to be talked about a lot throughout the week.''

''It's the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,'' Manning said. ''But when you get to the AFC championship, it's about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.''

The Chargers regretted not trying another onside kick after Manning converted a 20-yard pass to Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from his 20-yard line, the first of three third-down conversions on Denver's final possession.

In their playoff loss last year, they couldn't salt away a fourth-quarter lead, in no small part because of curious calls and inexact execution.

''I felt like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long,'' Manning said. ''We've worked on it in training camp, we've worked on it in the season. ... It was nice that all that hard work paid off for us.''

Manning also hit Thomas on third-and-6 from his 45, then the Broncos iced it on Knowshon Moreno's 5-yard burst on third-and-1 with 1:12 left.

''When they got that first down I was jumping up and down,'' Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. ''It was delightful.''

San Diego coach Mike McCoy, who was Denver's offensive coordinator a year ago, was downcast in Denver once again, and so was Rivers, who had led his team to five straight do-or-die wins.

''If we got it one more time, I believe deep down we would've tied that thing up,'' Rivers said. ''But we didn't. Those are all a bunch of what-ifs.''

Manning ended a personal three-game postseason skid in winning for the first time since leading Indianapolis over the Jets 30-17 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 24, 2010.

Manning completed 25 of 36 passes for 230 yards and two TDs, numbers that weren't quite up to the standards he set during a record-breaking regular season when he established new benchmarks with 55 TD passes and 5,447 yards.

But it was windy and the Broncos were intent on establishing the run and controlling the clock, and they converted 9 of 13 third downs while holding the ball for 35 1/2 minutes.

After gaining just 18 yards on the ground against San Diego last month, the Broncos ran for 133 yards, including 82 by Moreno, whose 3-yard TD run put them ahead 24-7 with 8:12 left.

After that, things got interesting.

Keenan Allen hauled in a 49-yard catch with Quentin Jammer in coverage on fourth-and-5 from the San Diego 25 with seven minutes left. That led to his second TD - both from 16 yards - that pulled the Chargers to 24-14 with 5:43 left.

''We got those two touchdowns in the second half, but it's unfortunate we didn't get started earlier,'' said Allen, who finished with 142 yards on six catches.

Decker then made his third big blunder of the day, flubbing the onside kick, which San Diego recovered, leading to Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal with 3:53 remaining that pulled the Chargers (10-8) to within a touchdown.

Novak followed with a pooch kick, and Trindon Holliday secured the ball at the Denver 27 with 3:51 left.

Manning's third-down brilliance kept the Chargers' offense on the sideline.

''Third-and-17, I was thinking we were definitely going to get the ball back,'' Allen said. ''And we were feeling good on the offensive side, having the momentum. It was just unfortunate we didn't get it.''

Notes: In the first half, Decker tripped at the San Diego 30-yard line after a 47-yard punt return. ''I guess it was that invisible fence that got me.'' said Decker, who then let Manning's pass in the end zone bounce off his chest and into the arms of linebacker Donald Butler - Manning's first red zone interception of the season. ... Welker wore an oversized safety helmet. ... Manti Te'o and Marcus Gilchrist sustained concussions. ... Denver did not punt for the first time in its playoff history and just the eighth time in NFL postseason history - three of those came with Manning under center.


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