The Denver Broncos held off a late rally by the San Diego Chargers to reach the AFC Championship game and set up another Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady battle.
The Broncos eventually won 24-17 after leading 17-0 going into the final quarter before the Chargers finally woke up. Until the final quarter San Diego had looked lost in the windy conditions at Mile High, conceding repeated neutral-zone infractions and failing to show any adventure on offense.
The victory for Manning's Broncos sets up a tantalising showdown next Sunday when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit Denver with a place in the Super Bowl on the line.
Manning, who passed for a record 55 touchdowns during a record-breaking regular season, was more clinical than spectacular on a blustery and cold day in Colorado. He completed 25 passes for a modest 230 yards, including two short touchdown strikes to Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas in the first half.
The red-hot Chargers arrived in Denver riding the momentum from a five-game winning streak but stumbled until a fourth quarter rally that cut Denver’s 17-point advantage to seven with six minutes to play.
But Manning would not give the Chargers another chance, running out the clock with ball control offense to clinch the victory.
Manning will now face Brady and the Patriots again after a series of epic play-off encounters between the franchise quarterbacks when Peyton played for the Indianapolis Colts.
They have faced each other three times in the play-offs and each time the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
Chargers quarter-back Philip Rivers completed 18 of 27 passes for two touchdowns and 217 yards, but until the final quarter the Chargers lacked ambition in the windy conditions against a solid Denver defense.
The Denver Broncos will play Sunday’s championship game without starting cornerback Chris Harris, who was ruled out with a knee injury, according to a report on the NFL website.
Harris suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the win over the San Diego Chargers and will need surgery to repair it, the report said.
“Blessed to be able to help the team get this far, and will still do my part in meeting room to help my guys out,” Harris wrote on his Twitter account.
The 24-year-old Harris, who has three interceptions for Denver this season, is a key man in the top-seeded Broncos’ secondary that will be tested by New England quarterback Brady and his receivers in Sunday’s game.
After Harris went out on Sunday in the third quarter against the Chargers, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers took advantage of his replacement, Quentin Jammer, during a late rally that fell short.