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Manning, Broncos beat Chargers to earn spot in AFC title game

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DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos celebrates their 24 to 17 win over the San Diego Chargers during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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By USA Today
Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

DENVER — Exactly a year after last season's stunning playoff loss, the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday made amends with a 24-17 AFC divisional playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers.

It won't erase all of the sting of the double-overtime loss to Baltimore, but it will allow Manning to at least temporarily shake his reputation that he fails to play well in January. With the win, Manning improved his postseason record to 10-11.

To get to his third Super Bowl — and his first with the Broncos — he'll have to beat his rival, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“We're the two best teams in the AFC,” Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. “What more can you ask for? You want the two best teams going head to head.”

The Broncos lost to the Patriots in overtime in November, but Denver now has some experience with revenge.

The Chargers came here a month ago and soundly beat the Broncos, 27-20, a game in which quarterback Philip Rivers controlled the clock and frustrated the Broncos' defense with a string of long drives as the Chargers rushed for 177 yards.

The Broncos won Sunday by stealing that script from the Chargers.

Denver rushed for 133 yards, including 77 yards in the first half. The Broncos had only 18 rushing yards in their last game against the Chargers. Running back Knowshon Moreno's 2-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter gave the Broncos a 24-7 lead and ignited a wild celebration from a sellout crowd that appeared to be growing antsy.

But Rivers, 6-2 in his previous eight starts in Denver, hit rookie receiver Keenan Allen for two big plays on the next drive — a deep completion on fourth down and a 16-yard touchdown, both completions coming against Denver reserve cornerback Quentin Jammer, the longtime Charger who replaced injured starter Chris Harris. The Chargers added a field goal later in the fourth quarter after recovering an onside kick.

But Manning ended the Chargers' furious comeback attempt with a pair of third-down completions to tight end Julius Thomas to move past midfield with two minutes remaining — the first, on a third-and-17, was perhaps Manning's most important pass of the season.

“You know you're going to have to hold the ball just to give guys a chance to get down the field. It was the perfect call versus the perfect coverage,” Manning said.

Manning was masterful through the first 29 minutes as he led the Broncos to a 14-0 lead thanks to a pair of touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, who made his return after missing the final three regular season games with a concussion.

The Broncos blew a chance to add another score just before halftime when Manning was intercepted in the back of the end zone by Chargers linebacker Donald Butler.

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