DENVER – At last, an entire city can exhale – and so can its football team.
The Denver Broncos defeated the San Diego Chargers in a divisional playoff game Sunday, building a 17-point lead then hanging on for a 24-17 victory in front of a bundled-up, boisterous crowd at Sports Authority Field.
The victory sets up an AFC championship showdown between New England and Denver – Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning – but on Manning’s home field this time.
“Obviously, we’re the two best teams in the AFC, because we’re playing for the AFC championship,” said Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips, whose team blew a 24-point lead to the Patriots in a 34-31 loss Nov. 24 in Foxborough, Mass. “What more can you ask for as a football player?”
In winning, the top-seeded Broncos washed away some of the bitter taste from last season, when they let a divisional win against Baltimore slip through their grasp in double overtime, and watched from home as the upstart Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.
This time, the surging Chargers were the threat, and, after being shut out for three quarters, San Diego made a game of it with a rally in the fourth that included two touchdown passes from Philip Rivers to rookie Keenan Allen, a successful onside kick and a field goal.
Of San Diego’s slow start, Allen said: “I think we just came out flat and not how we wanted to. We couldn’t capitalize on third downs coming out of the first half. We tried to make a turnaround, but it was obviously too little, too late.”
Those scoring plays in the fourth quarter quieted the crowd, buffeted all game by a steady wind and temperatures in the 30s, but didn’t stifle Manning, who made the necessary big plays down the stretch to collect his first playoff victory since his Indianapolis Colts beat the New York Jets in the 2009 AFC championship game.
Sunday was the third game of the season between the Broncos and Chargers, who split the previous two.
Manning slammed the door on any thoughts of a San Diego comeback with a clutch drive that burned the final 4 minutes off the clock.
Manning converted two crucial third downs on that drive, both to tight end Julius Thomas – a sideline pass for 21 yards on third-and-17, and a 9-yard completion on third-and-6.