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 Chris Harris.
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.