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Broncos 24, Chargers 17

Peyton Manning leads Broncos to AFC title game

Wes Welker hauls in a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Peyton Manning in the second quarter that helped the Broncos to a 14-0 lead.

JUSTIN EDMONDS/GETTY IMAGES

Wes Welker hauls in a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Peyton Manning in the second quarter that helped the Broncos to a 14-0 lead.

DENVER — A game that appeared to be clinched by the Broncos midway through the fourth quarter turned out to be a nailbiter in the closing minutes, yet unlike exactly 365 days ago in a loss to the Ravens, the Broncos chose the aggressive route over the conservative option.

A pair of third-down pass completions from Denver quarterback Peyton Manning to tight end Julius Thomas Sunday propelled Denver to a 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers and into next Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Patriots at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

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“I loved Adam’s aggressive calls,” said Manning of Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who became the play caller when the man across the field, Mike McCoy, left last offseason to become the Chargers’ head coach.

Interestingly, McCoy was not conservative late in the game. His gamble on fourth and 5 produced a 49-yard gain against Denver’s porous secondary. A Denver defense that was stout against the run was exposed against Philip Rivers’s passing prowess, particularly when former Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer had to replace the injured Chris Harris (ankle, knee), who is questionable for the AFC title game.

“Philip got hot and I did not want to give him the ball back,” said Manning, who completed a 21-yard pass to a wide open Thomas with 3:06 remaining, and a 9-yard pass on third down to Thomas with 2:02 to go. From there, Manning needed only two plays to run out the clock on his first playoff victory as a Bronco.

He improved his much-criticized playoff record to 10-11 just two years removed from four neck surgeries and his release from the Indianapolis Colts.

“To me, that is one of the most rewarding parts of football,” he said of the improvement in late-game aggressive pass play execution. “When you put that work in off to the side or after practice and it pays off in a game, it really makes it feel like it was worth it.”

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Manning finished with 230 yards passing, completing 25 of 36 for two touchdowns and one interception.

Rivers was 18 for 27 with two touchdowns. The Broncos outrushed San Diego, 133 yards to 65, and dominated time of possession, 35:27 to 24:33.

It was not a flawless Denver offense or defense, which the Patriots no doubt noticed.

Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips compared it to the last Denver-New England game, Nov. 24, when the Broncos blew a large lead and lost in overtime, 34-31.

“We have to do a better job of closing the door on teams,” he said. “We didn’t do it against the Patriots either, but now we meet again. The two best teams in the AFC. Tom Brady is my second-favorite quarterback after Peyton Manning.”

Manning and Brady are constantly compared, and the marquee matchup is already the talk of the NFL despite the insistence of Denver coach John Fox and Manning to enjoy this hard-fought victory before turning the discussion to the Patriots. Indeed, Fox has much to savor after missing four games because of heart surgery.

While pointing out the difficulty of returning to this point after the heartbreaking loss the Broncos experienced against Baltimore last season, and Fox’s absences, Manning did expand on another playoff meeting with Brady.

“Tom Brady has just been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time, but the game next week is the Broncos vs. the Patriots,” Manning said. “I know there will be some individual matchups that will get the headlines, but it will be a battle between two good teams, teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point, and that’s where my focus will be, trying to help the Broncos get a win against the Patriots.”

Denver will have home-field advantage again, a true advantage it appeared Sunday when the combination of Manning’s snap count manipulations and the roar of the crowd of 76,969 contributed to five penalties against the Chargers for jumping offside.

Along with the Brady-Manning talk, slot receiver Wes Welker, the former Patriot, will be part of the conversation.

Sporting a larger helmet, a concession to the concussions that had sidelined him for 3½ games leading up to the Chargers matchup, Welker caught six passes for 38 yards, but he dropped a pass at the goal line, forcing Denver to settle for a 45-yard field goal.

“It is good to be out there, and competing with my teammates and coming away with a win,” Welker said. “Any time you get a playoff win it is a big deal, and we got a really big one coming up next week.’’

Despite the drop, Welker made a key play in drawing a crucial pass interference penalty as Manning was quick to return to him with the game on the line.

While that call was questionable, the block in the back that went against the Broncos was not, though it erased one of the more electrifying plays of the game on a cold, windy day — a 105-yard kickoff return by Trindon Holliday.

The speedster, who has muffed punts, was replaced by wide receiver Eric Decker in that role.

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