KUSA - The Denver Broncos defense perplexed Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers for three quarters Sunday, but then had to hang on for a 24-17 victory to advance to the AFC championship game.
The Broncos will host the AFC title game next Sunday against New England, which beat Indianapolis on Saturday. It will be Denver's ninth AFC title game and sixth time to host the championship game.
The Broncos are 6-2 in title games, including 4-1 at home (the last time was after the 2005 season against Pittsburgh). Kickoff against the Patriots is 1 p.m. Sunday.
"This was a pretty intense game. Philip got hot there in the second half, and I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end," said Broncos quarterback Petyon Manning, who finished with 230 yards passing and two touchdowns. "There was some real want-to on the offense's part to stay on the field in that last series."
The Chargers had just 79 yards and zero points through the first three quarters, but then took advantage of the Broncos' secondary without cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was injured late in the third quarter. The Chargers had 180 yards in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers' offense came to life and got on the scoreboard two minutes into the fourth quarter when Keenan Allen beat Quinton Jammer, who was drafted by San Diego in 2002, just inside the end zone to pull within 17-7 on the 16-yard pass from Rivers. Harris had shut down Allen in the first three quarters, but Harris left because of knee and ankle injuries.
"Anytime you lose a starter, you going to have struggles, and we did," coach John Fox said. "But all in all, I thought our defense played one of its better games."
Manning responded with a nine-play, 81-yard touchdown drive with the last 24 yards coming on three consecutive carries by Knowshon Moreno. He scored on a 3-yard run up the middle for a 24-7 lead.
But again the Chargers' offense put together a TD drive, going 80 yards in seven plays to pull within 24-14 with 5:43 left in regulation. Rivers again found Allen who stretched across the goal line to complete the 16-yard play.
Getting a big bounce on the ensuing onside kick, Chargers cornerback Richard Marshall jumped on the ball at the San Diego 40-yard line. The Chargers pulled within a touchdown, 24-17 eight plays later on Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal with 3:53 to play.
The Chargers' downfall was not being able to stop Denver on a third-and-17 with 3 minutes to play as Julius Thomas was wide-open on the sideline for a 20-yard catch to all but secure the game.
"Juilus was huge all game, and he's been huge all season," Manning said. "To run (four) minutes off the clock at the end of the game, that was big-time football there."
Said Chargers coach Mike McCoy: "It was a lack of communication on our part."
The Broncos defense stymied Rivers in the first half, holding the Chargers to 45 total yards as the quarterback was just 5-of-8 for 20 yards and he was sacked three times.
The Broncos were looking to take a 21-0 lead just before halftime, but Peyton Manning's pass to Eric Decker in the end zone went off the receiver's chest and to the Chargers defense to end the threat.
Manning was 11-of-16 passing for 100 yards with two TDs and one interception in the first half, as Denver had 177 total yards. Montee Ball led Denver with 39 yards on seven carries, and Knowshown Moreno had 38 yards on 10 carries.
The Broncos, after giving up an interception in the end zone in the closing seconds of the first half, opened the third quarter with a 5½ minute drive that ended on Matt Prater's 45-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead. Later in the quarter Prater missed on a 47-yard try. It was just his second miss of the season.
Denver opened the scoring with Manning's 2-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas to cap a 14-play, 86-yard drive that took just over 7 minutes. Then Wes Welker made his return known on a third-down touchdown pass in the second quarter for a 14-0 lead.
On the Chargers' first drive the Broncos stopped them on third-and-17, but a defensive face mask by Malik Jackson on Danny Woodhead kept the drive going. Rivers was sacked twice in the drive and failed on the second third-and-long.
Decker was back for the return inside the 10-yard line and returned it to the Broncos' 14-yard line. Denver scored 14 plays later to take a 7-0 lead.
On their second drive after holding the Chargers to three-and-out, the Broncos gave back the ball after tight end Julius Thomas fumbled at the Chargers' 44-yard-line after making a catch. It was the Broncos' first lost fumble in the past six games.
But the Denver defense held strong again, sacking Rivers for the third time in the first half on third-and 3. Going for a career-long and with the wind at his back, Nick Novick's 53-yard field goal attempt was short and to the left with just over 11 minutes left in the half.
"What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth after this win...Priority No. 1," Manning said.
It looks like the Patriots can wait until Monday.
(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)