Broncos edge Chargers to reach AFC title game
Denver, CO (SportsNetwork.com) - Peyton Manning was thirsty. Standing behind the podium, the quarterback drew laughs when he said all he wanted was a beer.
"What's weighing on my mind," he said, "is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth."
You could hardly blame him.
Manning threw two touchdown passes and the Denver Broncos reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time in eight years after hanging on to beat the San Diego Chargers 24-17 on Sunday.
The Chargers, who played Denver tougher than any team this season, made a game out of it when they cut a 17-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to seven points after two 16-yard touchdown catches by Keenan Allen and a successful onside kick that led to a field goal with 3:53 remaining.
But Manning completed two third-down passes to tight end Julius Thomas and the Broncos picked up one more first down on their last drive to earn revenge for a 27-20 loss to the Chargers last month in their worst offensive performance of the season.
"If we got it one more time I believe deep down we would have tied that thing up," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
Manning threw for 230 yards with touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, who returned from a concussion, and Knowshon Moreno had a 3-yard touchdown run in between Chargers scores in the fourth quarter.
Rivers passed for 217 yards and Allen had six catches for 142 but the Chargers fell short on what would have been a stunning comeback against the top-seeded Broncos.
The Chargers held the Broncos -- the first NFL team ever to score 600 points -- under 30 points for the third time this season, but couldn't keep the ball out of Manning's hands long enough.
"The character of our players showed up," said Chargers coach and former Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. "We kept on fighting to the bitter end."
With his new, pesky divisional rival out of the way, Manning will face another familiar foe next Sunday when the Broncos host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
Manning, who set NFL record for touchdown passes and passing yards during the regular season, is 4-10 against Brady and the Patriots, including 0-2 with Denver. The quarterbacks split a pair of AFC title games when Manning was the Indianapolis quarterback.
"There will be some individual matchups that will get headlines," said Manning, "but it will be a battle between two good teams that have overcome a lot to get to this point."
The Patriots rallied from a 24-0 deficit to beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24, and they routed Manning's old team Saturday, beating the Colts 43-22 behind four rushing touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount.
The sixth-seeded Chargers, after beating Cincinnati on the road in last week's Wild Card Round, had a five-game winning streak snapped. Ryan Mathews rushed five times for 26 yards after missing practice all week with an ankle injury.
The Broncos held the Chargers scoreless until 2:01 into the fourth quarter when Allen hauled in Rivers' pass over his left shoulder in the front right corner of the end zone to get San Diego within 17-7.
An illegal block penalty negated Trindon Holliday's touchdown return from the end zone on the ensuing kickoff, but the Broncos scored on Moreno's 3-yard run after a 23-yard pass interference on third down kept their drive alive.
Allen had a 49-yard catch on fourth down, then stretched his second touchdown reception over the line with 5:43 left. Denver wide receiver Eric Decker let the high onside kick go off his chest and San Diego recovered, leading to Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal.
But Manning completed passes of 21 and nine yards to Thomas on a pair of third downs and Moreno picked up the last first down on a 5-yard run to seal it.
"To run (four) minutes off the clock at the end of the game, that was big-time football right there," said Manning. "We'll enjoy this one."
The Broncos had built a 14-0 lead in the first half on touchdown catches by Demaryius Thomas and Welker but missed an opportunity for more when Chargers linebacker Donald Butler intercepted Manning in the end zone before halftime.
Earlier, Manning's 2-yard throw to Demaryius Thomas just over the goal line made it 7-0 after a seven-minute drive in the first quarter that included 14 plays for 86 yards.
Julius Thomas was stripped by safety Jahleel Addae early in the second quarter but Novak was wide-left on a 53-yard field goal try for the Chargers after the fumble, slipping as he planted for the kick.
The Broncos then went 57 yards in nine plays, the last Welker's 3-yard catch in the front corner of the end zone with six minutes left in the half.
Later, Decker broke at least four tackles on a 47-yard punt return before he tripped himself up at the San Diego 30.
Decker was the intended target on Manning's pass into the back of the end zone on third down from the 4-yard line, but the pass glanced off his chest and Butler got both feet down for the pick with 30 seconds left in the half.
Holliday's 37-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter set up Matt Prater's 45-yard field goal for a 17-0 Broncos lead. Prater's kick went just over the right upright. The Broncos kicker missed a 47-yard try wide-left on Denver's next drive.
Manning snapped a personal three-game playoff losing streak dating back to the 2010 Super Bowl against New Orleans ... Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o left the game in the second quarter with a concussion and didn't return ...Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (ankle and knee injuries) also left the game ... Denver lost the 2006 AFC title game to Pittsburgh ... Rivers fell to 6-3 all- time in Denver ... The Broncos were also the No. 1 seed last season but fell to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore in double-overtime after their first-round bye.
01/12 23:35:32 ET