4:40 PM ET, January 12, 2014
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO
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 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.
More Broncos-Chargers coverage
For 365 days, the Broncos have waited to avenge last season's playoff heartbreak. They did it against the Chargers on Sunday, and should be a different team going forward because of it, writes Jeff Legwold. Story
In his first season as head coach of the Chargers, Mike McCoy molded this group into a cohesive unit that, with a little more talent and seasoning, could develop into a consistent playoff contender, writes Eric D. Williams. Story
• Chadiha: AFC title game Q&A
• Radio: Golic, Carter & Sedano
• Quick Take: Broncos | Patriots
• Gallery: Photos from divisional round
• Stats & Info: Manning makes it count
• Betting: Denver favored at home
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 38-35 win in double overtime at Denver.
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.
Broncos Get Selfish
The storyline coming into this game was how the Chargers dominated time of possession in the teams' first two meetings. On Sunday, however, it was the Broncos' turn to play keep-away.
|3rd down conv.||4-12||9-13|
|Time of poss.||24:33||35:27|
"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 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.
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."
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.
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos warms up prior to their AFC...(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Team Stat Comparison
Passing 1st downs
Rushing 1st downs
1st downs from penalties
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
|Yards per play||5.3||5.2|
Yards per pass
Yards per rush
|Red Zone (Made-Att)||2-3||3-4|
|Defensive / Special Teams TDs||0||0|
|TD||2:31||Demaryius Thomas 2 Yard Pass From Peyton Manning (Matt Prater Kick is Good)|
Drive info: 14 plays, 86 yds, 7:01
|TD||6:04||Wes Welker 3 Yard Pass From Peyton Manning (Matt Prater Kick is Good)|
Drive info: 9 plays, 57 yds, 5:13
|FG||9:39||Matt Prater 45 Yard Field Goal is Good|
Drive info: 12 plays, 37 yds, 5:25
|TD||13:03||Keenan Allen 16 Yard Pass From Philip Rivers (Nick Novak Kick is Good)|
Drive info: 6 plays, 63 yds, 3:08
|TD||8:15||Knowshon Moreno 3 Yard Run (Matt Prater Kick is Good)|
Drive info: 9 plays, 81 yds, 4:47
|TD||5:49||Keenan Allen 16 Yard Pass From Philip Rivers (Nick Novak Kick is Good)|
Drive info: 7 plays, 80 yds, 2:29
|FG||3:56||Nick Novak 30 Yard Field Goal is Good|
Drive info: 8 plays, 48 yds, 1:50
Much of the talk going into this game was how the Chargers controlled to clock for over 38 minutes in each of their meetings with Denver in the regular season, while outrushing them by an average of over 100 yards. The Broncos reversed the trend in this game, aided by converting on 9-of-13 3rd downs, including a key 3rd-and-17 on the final drive.[+]
Much like the Patriots in their win on Saturday, the Broncos leaned on their running game Sunday. The Broncos called designed rush plays on 34 of their 70 offensive snaps (48.6%), their second-highest rush percentage of the season (55.8% in Week 12 vs the Patriots). In their Week 15 loss to the Chargers, they rushed on 20.8% of offensive snaps, their lowest rush percentage of the season. The Broncos converted 9-of-13 (69.2%) third downs Sunday after converting 29.4% of their third-down opportunities in two regular season meetings with the Chargers. The Chargers were 4-for-12 on third down Sunday (33.3%) after converting an NFL-best 49.0% of third downs in the regular season, including 46.4% against the Broncos. The Broncos held the ball for over 35 minutes Sunday, after having fewer than 22 minutes of possession in each of their two regular-season matchups with the Chargers, their two lowest time of possession totals this season.[+]
Broncos Rushing vs Chargers, This Season
Philip Rivers completed 6-of-7 passes 15 or more yards downfield for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter after not completing a deep pass in the first three quarters. --Keenan Allen, who was held without a catch in the first half, had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. All five of Allen's fourth-quarter receptions came on throws at least 15 yards downfield. Allen's 123 fourth-quarter receiving yards are the most in any quarter of a playoff game since 2001.[+]
Philip Rivers Passing, Sunday
- Peyton Manning used his patented hard count to draw five neutral zone infraction penalties, the most drawn by a team in a single game since 2001 (start of Stats & Info's dataset) and nearly matching the regular-season total of seven such penalties drawn by the Broncos, fourth most in the NFL. - Peyton Manning's interception in the end zone at the end of the first half was his first red-zone interception of the season, after throwing an NFL-high 37 red zone touchdowns without an interception in the regular season. That play was also the Chargers' first red zone interception of the season. - Peyton Manning's 3rd-and-17 conversion to Julius Thomas on the Broncos' final drive was their third 3rd-down conversion of 17+ yards on five attempts (60%) this season. Entering the game, teams had converted 11.2% of such third-down opportunities this season.
Ryan Mathews gained 26 yards on five rushes in the first half, but did not play in the second half. Mathews, who led the NFL in rushing after Week 11, ran for 127 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in the Chargers' Week 15 victory in Denver.[+]
Chargers Rushing vs Broncos, This Season
The Broncos' offensive line kept Peyton Manning comfortable Sunday, avoiding a Chargers sack for the first time this season. Manning was under duress on two of 36 dropbacks (5.6%), his second-lowest duress percentage of the season. In their Week 10 matchup, the Chargers sacked or forced Manning to throw under duress 23.7% of the time, his second-highest duress percentage this season. Manning completed both passes under duress Sunday, a touchdown to Wes Welker and a 3rd-and-17 conversion to Julius Thomas on the Broncos' final drive. The Chargers were one of two NFL teams not to allow a touchdown under duress after Week 1
Not only did the Chargers keep the ball for more than 38 minutes per game against the Broncos this season, but they converted 46.4 percent of their 3rd downs, compared to 29.4 percent for Denver. And while the Chargers only converted 4 of their 8 red-zone drives into touchdowns, they had three MORE red-zone possessions than the Broncos.[+]
Head-to-Head This Season
The Broncos have drawn 5 neutral zone infractions on the Chargers today, the most drawn by a team in a single game since 2001.
The last time the Chargers were shut out in the first half of a playoff game was the 2007 wild card game against the Titans. They were down 6-0 at halftime and won 17-6.
Eric Decker had 3 punt returns for 66 yards in the first half Sunday. Decker had 3 punt returns for 24 yards the previous two seasons combined.
Peyton Manning was 1-3 against the remaining AFC playoff teams this season (Chargers, Patriots and Colts) and was sacked as many times in those four games as in his other 12 games combined.[+]
Peyton Manning This Season
The Broncos had the ball for over 16 minutes in the first half. In each of their two regular season meetings, the Chargers had the ball for 38+ minutes.
The Chargers were 1-6 on third down in the first half. They converted an NFL-best 49% of third downs during the regular season, and were 6-12 in their Week 15 over the Broncos.
Much like last year in the Divisional Playoffs, the Broncos got the ball with less than 4 minutes left, leading by 7. Instead of just running the ball, they used runs and passes to successfully run out the clock.[+]
Broncos Late Drives in Regulation, Last 2 Postseason Games
Rivers has targeted his wide receivers just twice in the first half. Both passes were incomplete.
Manning's interception just before halftime was his first red zone interception of the season, and the first red zone interception for the Chargers defense this season.
ESPN Stats & Information
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