NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
With a berth in the AFC title game hanging in the balance, quarterback Peyton Manning dodged pressure to make his best throw of the day and tight end Julius Thomas made the clutch catch.
The 21-yard completion on a third-and-17 play was the key component in Manning's clock-killing drive in the final four minutes as the Denver Broncos held off the San Diego Chargers 24-17 on Sunday to advance to the conference championship.
Manning and the Broncos (14-3) will play host next Sunday to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who beat the Indianapolis Colts in a divisional playoff on Saturday. The winner will advance to the Super Bowl against either San Francisco or Seattle, who will meet in the NFC title game.
In the most recent matchup between the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Brady and the Patriots rallied past Manning and the visiting Broncos 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24.
Manning finished 25 of 36 for 230 yards and two touchdowns and was at his best on the Broncos' final possession to help fend off the Chargers (10-8), who scored all their points in a furious fourth quarter.
"This was a pretty intense game," Manning said. "(San Diego quarterback) Philip Rivers got hot there in the second half. I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end. There was some real want-to on our offense's part to stay on the field on that last series."
And it took some doing.
San Diego, which trailed 14-0 at halftime and 17-0 early in the third, had fought back to within a touchdown after Nick Novak kicked a 30-yard field goal with 3:56 left. The Broncos returned the ensuing kickoff to their 27-yard line but were set back to the 22 by a false start. Moreno lost 2 yards on a run and Manning's second pass fell incomplete before he connected with Thomas near the right sideline as two San Diego defenders converged on him in vain.
"It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage," Manning said, referring to play called by offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "You may get one or two of those a game. It certainly came at a good time."
Chargers safety Eric Weddle said Thomas got open on a blown coverage.
"We had a miscommunication and it got us," Weddle said. "It was great execution by them and not by us. It cost us the game or the chance to at least tie it up."
Manning converted another third down with a 9-yard completion to Thomas, Moreno then gained 5-yards on a third-and-1 play, and with the Chargers out of timeouts, Manning took a knee at the San Diego 32-yard line to run out the last few seconds and culminate what was a classic four-minute "keep-away" drive.
"It was very frustrating watching it," said Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who caught a pair of 16-yard touchdown passes from Rivers. "With third-and-17, I was thinking we were definitely going to get the ball back. And we were feeling good on the offensive side, having the momentum. It was just unfortunate we didn't get it."
Rivers finished 18 of 27 for 217 yards passing but was without running back Ryan Mathews in the second half. Mathews started the game despite an ankle injury that forced him to miss practice this week but was unable to finish.
Denver used a more deliberate offensive approach, running effectively with Moreno and Montee Ball wand controlling the ball more, to avenge a late season loss to San Diego, which was the only team to beat the Broncos in Denver this season.
The Broncos stretched their lead to 17-0 on Matt Prater's 45-yard field goal midway through the third quarter but he later missed a 47-yard attempt wide left, giving the Chargers a short field for a drive that led to their first score.
Allen got behind cornerback Quentin Jammer, who had come in for the injured Chri
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--Quarterback Peyton Manning did not comment following the Denver Broncos' 24-17 victory Sunday in a AFC Divisional playoff game on the report that his football future will be decided by a neck exam.
Asked how much the uncertainty of his career was weighing on him, Manning offered only a cold bit of comedy.
"Really not. The only thing weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth," said Manning, smirking in the direction of friends and family near the back of the media room.
Manning might not play beyond this season, depending on the results of an offseason exam on his surgically-repaired neck, ESPN reported Sunday.
ESPN reported that Manning will have the exam in March, which is required in his contract. If the exam shows that his neck is stable, Manning plans to return to the Broncos next season. However, if there is an increased injury risk, Manning may retire.
Manning, 37, set NFL single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in 2013.
Manning had fusion surgery on his neck in 2011, which weakened his throwing arm and forced him to miss the entire season. He was then released by the Indianapolis Colts. He signed a five-year, $96 million deal with the Broncos in 2012.
In Manning's first year in Denver, the Broncos lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC playoffs. In 2013, the Broncos went 13-3 and got the No. 1 seed in this year's playoffs. They host the San Diego Chargers in a divisional playoff Sunday.
--Perhaps mindful of their double overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoff round last season, the Broncos ditched the conservative approach and let it all hang out offensively in the late going Sunday.
With quarterback Peyton Manning passing for two key first downs, the Broncos ran out the final four minutes, keeping the Chargers from getting another shot at a game-tying score. Still, the harrowing finish brought back some painful memories.
"Yeah, absolutely," Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. "We have been in a position like this before, except this time we found a way to get it done, and on to the next opponent."
--According to coach John Fox, the Broncos lost only one player to injury in the game, but it came at a key position heading into the AFC Championship Game against quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Cornerback Chris Harris left the game in the second half with what the team said were knee and ankle injuries. There was no immediate update on his status for the conference title game.
--Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker had six catches for 38 yards in his return from a concussion. He missed the last three games of the regular season after suffering his second concussion of the season. Welker wore a specially designed oversized helmet to better protect his head from any damaging blows.
"I have been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it," Welker said. "But it is kind of looking like 'The Jetsons' out there."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "(The defense) is still a work in progress. We've got to be a much better team because we've got a much better quarterback and team coming in here next week. (The New England Patriots) gave us a good beating a couple of months ago, so we're looking forward to it." -- Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey.
--"It's hard to explain all the stuff we've been through, offseason and in-season. To get to this point was hard work, and to win this game was really hard work. We are proud and happy to be at this point, and we certainly want to keep it going." -- Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Championship Game Credentials
RECORD: 14-3, AFC West champions
COACH: John Fox; 111-89 overall at Carolina and Denver; 1-1 in playoffs since hired in 2012
CURRENT WINNING STREAK: Three games
LAST FOUR GAMES VS. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
--Nov. 24, 2013: Patriots 34-31 (at Foxbrough, Mass.)
--Oct. 7, 2012: Patriots 31-21 (at Foxborough, Mas.)
--Dec. 18, 2011: Patriots 41-23 (at Denver)
--Oct. 11, 2009: Broncos 20-17 (at Denver)
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Denver has six AFC titles and two Super Bowl victories (XXXII in 1997 and XXXIII in '98). The Broncos last AFC Championship game appearance came after the 2005 season, a 34-17 home loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2013 REGULAR SEASON RANKINGS
--Offense: 1st (457.3 yards per game)
--Scoring: 1st (37.9 points per game)
--Passing: 1st (340.3 yards per game)
--Rushing: 15th (117.3 yards per game)
--Defense: 19th (356 ypg)
--Scoring: 22nd (24.9 ppg)
--Passing: 27th (254.4 ypg)
--Rushing: 7th - tied (101.6 ypg)
--Sacks: 41 (Shaun Phillips, 10.0)