DENVER – Peyton Manning welcomed Wes Welker back into the lineup with a touchdown toss 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 Sunday.
The Broncos (14-3) took a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers then capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore’s shocking win at Denver exactly a year earlier.
This time, however, 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.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” Manning said after beating San Diego. “But when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
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 throws and 5,447 yards through the air.
But it was windy and the Broncos were intent on establishing the run and controlling the clock. San Diego had Manning and his high-octane offense cooling their cleats on the sideline for more than 38 minutes in both of their meetings during the regular season, when both teams won on the road.
Denver had the ball for 35 minutes, 27 seconds in this game, to San Diego’s 24:33.
After gaining just 18 yards on the ground against San Diego last month, the Broncos ran for 133 yards, including 82 by Knowshon Moreno, whose 3-yard TD run put them ahead 24-7 with 8:12 left.
After that, things got interesting.
Quentin Jammer, who gave up San Diego’s first TD, a 16-yarder to Keenen Allen early in the fourth quarter, surrendered a 49-yard catch by Allen on fourth-and-5 from the San Diego 25 with seven minutes left.
That led to Allen’s second TD, also from 16 yards out, that pulled the Chargers to 24-14 with 5:43 left.
Eric Decker then made his third big blunder of the day, flubbing the onside kick, which San Diego recovered.
Nick Novak’s 30-yard field goal with 3:53 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 converted two third-down throws to tight end Julius Thomas, the first one a nifty 21-yarder on third-and-17 from his 20 and then a third-and-6 from his 45-yard line.
Then, on third-and-1, Moreno burst up the middle for 5 yards with a minute left and the offensive linemen high-fived each other.
All Manning had to do at that point was take a knee – just like he did last year at the end of regulation after Jacoby Jones had hauled in Joe Flacco’s 70-yard desperation throw with 31 seconds left to tie the game.
In that game, coach John Fox ordered Manning to take a knee even though he had three timeouts left so he could take his chances in overtime. And the Broncos lost 38-35 in double overtime.
Those boos were replaced by cheers in this game, the scowls by smiles.
Allen finished with six catches for 142 yards as the Chargers lost for the first time in six weeks.
The Broncos took a 14-0 halftime lead that could have easily been 21-0 if not for blunders by Decker, who tripped with no defender near him at the San Diego 30-yard line after a 47-yard punt return.
Then, on third-and-goal from the 4, Manning hit him with a perfect pass as he cut across the back of the end zone, but it bounced off his chest and into the arms of linebacker Donald Butler with 30 seconds left.
Manning threw up his arms in disbelief after his first red zone interception of the season — following 39 red-zone TDs.
Thomas also had a turnover, but it wasn’t that costly as Novak slipped and his foot hit the ground on a 53-yard field goal try that was short and wide left.
The Chargers were the only opponent to win in Denver all season, prevailing 27-20 exactly a month earlier when the Broncos were missing Welker (concussion) and went 2 for 9 on third down.
Welker finished with six catches for 38 yards, although he dropped his first pass and also couldn’t hold onto another 27-yarder at the goal line.
Manning led a 14-play, 86-yard drive that chewed up 7 minutes on Denver’s first drive. He capped it with a 2-yard strike to Demaryius Thomas, then hit Welker from 3 yards out in the second quarter to make it 14-0.
This was the 109th meeting between the original AFL rivals but the first in the postseason.