|Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno carries the ball against the San Diego Chargers in the second quarter on Sunday. (AFP-Yonhap News)|
The Broncos (14-3) took a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers then capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore’s shocking win at Denver exactly a year earlier.
This time, however, Manning rescued the Broncos from the brink of another crushing collapse and sent them into the title game for the first time in eight seasons.
They’ll host the New England Patriots (13-4) on Sunday.
Get ready for Brady vs. Manning once more.
In the most recent matchup of QBs with Hall of Fame credentials, Tom Brady and the Patriots rallied past Manning and the visiting Broncos 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” Manning said after beating San Diego. “But when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
Manning ended a personal three-game postseason skid in winning for the first time since leading Indianapolis over the Jets 30-17 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 24, 2010.
Manning completed 25 of 36 passes for 230 yards and two TDs, numbers that weren’t quite up to the standards he set during a record-breaking regular season when he established new benchmarks with 55 TD throws and 5,447 yards through the air.
But it was windy and the Broncos were intent on establishing the run and controlling the clock. San Diego had Manning and his high-octane offense cooling their cleats on the sideline for more than 38 minutes in both of their meetings during the regular season, when both teams won on the road.
Denver had the ball for 35 minutes, 27 seconds in this game, to San Diego’s 24:33.
After gaining just 18 yards on the ground against San Diego last month, the Broncos ran for 133 yards, including 82 by Knowshon Moreno, whose 3-yard TD run put them ahead 24-7 with 8:12 left.
After that, things got interesting.
Quentin Jammer, who gave up San Diego’s first TD, a 16-yarder to Keenen Allen early in the fourth quarter, surrendered a 49-yard catch by Allen on fourth-and-5 from the San Diego 25 with seven minutes left.
That led to Allen’s second TD, also from 16 yards out, that pulled the Chargers to 24-14 with 5:43 left.
Eric Decker then made his third big blunder of the day, flubbing the onside kick, which San Diego recovered.
49ers set up Seattle rematch
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) ― Colin Kaepernick raced into the end zone, then pretended to rip open his shirt with both hands imitating Cam Newton’s Superman touchdown celebration.
Three years of frustration had come to a head.
“Just a little shoutout,” Kaepernick said.
“I think you know the answer,” Kaepernick said with a grin.
Kaepernick said he “will never forget” that he was selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, 35 spots behind Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and the top pick that season.
On Sunday, he outplayed his quarterback counterpart, throwing one touchdown pass and running for another score as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 to advance to the NFC title game for the third straight season.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards in the divisional playoff win, avenging his worst statistical performance of the season two months ago against the Panthers.
“That’s not the first, nor will it be the last time somebody does that,” Newton said of Kaepernick’s copycat display before leaving the postgame podium.
Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 136 yards and Frank Gore ran for 84 yards on 17 carries for the 49ers (14-4), who will visit Seattle next Sunday looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
“I think we’re the two teams that everybody was looking at from the beginning,” Kaepernick said. “It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.”
The 49ers will have their hands full.
San Francisco (14-4) split two games with the Seahawks this season, but lost 29-3 at CenturyLink Field in September.
The 49ers were missing receiver Michael Crabtree in that lopsided loss. Crabtree only had three catches for 26 yards against Carolina, but Boldin said he drew plenty of double teams that allowed him to get open.