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 on 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 play host to 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.
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 7 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 flubbed the onside kick, which San Diego recovered.
Nick Novak’s 30-yard field goal with 3:53 left 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.
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.
When they got that first down I was jumping up and down, Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. It was delightful.
Allen finished with six catches for 142 yards.
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 after a 47-yard punt return.
Then, on third-and-goal from the 4, Manning hit him 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.