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Broncos hold off Chargers, reach AFC title game

DENVER

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 Broncos narrowly avoided a repeat of their playoff slip from last year, reaching the AFC Championship Game with a 24-17 win over the AFC West rival Chargers.

The Broncos (14-3) led 17-0 in the fourth quarter before San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore's shocking 38-35 playoff win in double overtime last season 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) next Sunday.

Get ready for Brady vs. Manning again. 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," Broncos receiver Eric Decker said. "It's going to be talked about a lot throughout the week."

The Chargers regretted not trying another onside kick after Manning hit receiver Julius Thomas for 20 yards on third and 17 from his 20-yard line, the first of three third-down conversions on Denver's final drive.

In their playoff loss last year, they couldn't salt away a fourth-quarter lead, in part because of bad calls and 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."

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, Denver's offensive coordinator a year ago, was downcast, as 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 completed 25 of 36 for 230 yards and two TDs, not quite up to the standards of a regular season in which he set league records with 55 touchdowns passes and 5,447 yards.

But it was windy and the Broncos were intent on establishing the run; they wound up holding the ball for 35½ 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.

But Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen hauled in a 49-yard catch on fourth and 5 from the San Diego 25 with seven minutes left. That led to his second TD — both from 16 yards — which closed the gap to 24-14 with 5:43 left.

Decker then flubbed the onside kick, which San Diego recovered, leading to Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal with 3:53 left that pulled the Chargers (10-8) within a touchdown.

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

Broncos hold off Chargers, reach AFC title game 01/12/14 [Last modified: Sunday, January 12, 2014 11:25pm]

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