DENVER - By using the running game and making far fewer mistakes, the Broncos were able to defeat the Chargers at home when it mattered. San Diego will be going home to prepare for the next season, while Denver is now preparing to play the New England Patriots for tickets to the Super Bowl.
When San Diego defeated Denver at home in Week 15, they did so by using the running game to dominate the clock and keep Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning off the field. This time around, Chargers Quarterback Philip Rivers' frustrations were clear as Denver did the same thing to him during the first three quarters.
The Broncos' offense possessed the ball for about 60 percent of the first 45 minutes and during that time held the Chargers scoreless. During those quarters, the Broncos moved the ball a total of 260 yards while the Chargers tallied just 79.
"All-in-all, I think our defense played one of its better games," Broncos Head Coach John Fox said after the game.
When San Diego did get points onto the score board, however, they did it with big passing plays and a recovered on-sides kick. They were able to put 17 points on the board within about 12 minutes.
But Manning had the ball as the end of the game -- and the end of the Chargers' season -- ticked nearer. Inside the two-minute warning, one last first-down sealed the win for Denver.
Although Rivers threw for many of his 217 yards during the fourth quarter, Denver maintained its lead on time of possession. By the time the teams headed into the locker rooms, Manning's offense had racked up 35 minutes and 27 seconds on the field.
Key to that result were 13 first-downs earned by Broncos rushers and four sacks tallied by their defensive teammates. The Chargers never sacked Manning and earned just one first-down with the running game.
Manning said short plays and field position were the reason why he and his teammates had such success on third down.
"We were good on third-down because we were good on first and second-down," he said.
In the end, Manning and Rivers both threw for two touchdowns. Manning's were caught by Wide Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. Rivers' were both caught by Wide Recover Keenan Allen.
The Broncos' rushing touchdown was earned by Knowshon Moreno.
In the post-game press conference, Coach Fox said his sights were still set on the Super Bowl: "There's only one happy team at the end of this, and that's the team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy."
"This was a pretty intense game," Manning said after the game. "Philip got hot there in the second half and I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end of the game."
-- Game Notes --
Gathered at midfield, the San Diego Chargers' captains called tails in the coin toss. It came up heads, and the Broncos decided to defer until the second half on a breezy day.
Starting with the ball, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was sacked twice on the opening drive, once by Jeremy Mincey and once by Shaun Phillips. An incomplete pass followed the second sack, and San Diego had to punt.
Denver's opening drive started at the 9 yard line. 14 plays, 86 yards and 7:01 later, Wide Receiver Demaryius Thomas caught a low pass in the end zone to put his team on the board first.
San Diego's offense took the field only briefly, hampered by a delay of game penalty, before having to punt the ball back to the Broncos for the last 16 seconds of the first quarter.
With the ball back in Peyton Manning's hands, Denver's offense completed a single 7-yard pass before the clock ran out on the quarter.
In the second play of the second quarter, Julius Thomas was hit hard as he tried to catch the ball and Safety Jahleel Addae was able to cause a fumble as Thomas fell to the ground. It was recovered by Cornerback Richard Marshall and confirmed on review, returning possession to the Chargers.
For a few plays it appeared San Diego had captured the momentum, until a 5-yard sack by Defensive End Malik Jackson put a stop to it. San Diego kicker Nick Novak tried to salvage the situation with a 53-yard field goal attempt, but it went wide left.
This time, thanks in part to two defensive penalties, the Broncos were able to hold onto the ball and advance down the field. Manning completed a 3-yard pass to Wes Welker, who returned Sunday after recovering from concussions sustained during the regular season, to put a second touchdown on the board.
San Diego got the ball back with six minutes remaining in the second quarter, but punted it away 2:27 later. Eric Decker returned the punt, breaking several tackles and bringing the crowd to their feet before he tripped over his own feet. If he had not fallen, Decker would have likely made it into the end zone. Instead, he was credited with a 47-yard return.
The Broncos started their last drive of the first half just inside the two-minute warning. The offense used several running plays to allow the clock to wind down, before spending their first time out to set up a scoring attempt to Decker that went incomplete.
Another passing attempt into the end zone was intercepted off a deflection for a touchback by Inside Line Backer Donald Buttler, but the Chargers allowed the clock to wind down into halftime.
Although the Chargers dominated time of possession last time they played in Denver, they trailed the Broncos by 2:20 after the half. On the offensive stats, Manning racked up 100 yards while Rivers threw for just 20 and Denver lead on rushing 77 yards to 44.
The 100 yards moved Manning past Joe Montana and into third place for the all-time postseason passing yards. Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas's touchdown moved him into third place for the most postseason touchdowns in Broncos history. Wes Welker also moved into 8th place for the most playoff catches in NFL history, with 71.
Because they deferred in the first half, Denver started the second half with the ball. Trindon Holliday returned it 37 yards after the punt to open the quarter. Denver was unable to turn that into momentum, however, and the drive ended when Welker dropped a pass under pressure.
Although still breezy, the winds were no longer strong enough to cause the uprights to sway wildly and Matt Prater's kick was good to add 3 points to Denver's lead. The 12 plays that led to those points chewed 5:25 off the clock.
Rivers wore his emotions on his sleeve during the ensuing, frustrating series. It ended with a first down being called back because of an offensive penalty and then two incomplete passes.
Denver started their subsequent drive with two rapid first downs and the Chargers' fourth and fifth neutral zone infraction penalties of the game. San Diego's defense held strong, however, and halted Denver's advance with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter. Prater was brought on to attempt a field goal, but his kick went wide left.
San Diego had possession going into the fourth quarter, and gained 30 yards on River's next pass. Riding a burst of momentum, the Chargers' offense finally put points on the board with a 16-yard scoring strike from Rivers to Wide Recover Keenan Allen.
Holliday went the distance on the punt return that followed, but an illegal block to the back called on the Broncos undid that work.
But in a way, the penalty was a blessing in disguise. It allowed the Broncos to set up a 9-play drive that moved the clock down to 8:12 remaining. Knowshon Moreno finished the drive with a rushing touchdown.
The Chargers continued to fight and instead of punting on 4th-down and five, Rivers through a pass that brought his team down field to the 26 yard line. Two plays later, Rivers threw another touchdown to Allen.
San Diego got the ball back by recovering an on-sides kick. Rivers was sacked again, but piloted his team down the field on subsequent plays. If either of two consecutive passes had been completed, the Chargers might have scored again. Instead, Kicker Nick Novak was called on to kick a field goal for 3 points.
The 8 plays of that drive took just 1:50 off the clock and Holliday received another kickoff for the Broncos with 3:50 left in the game.
-- Facts and history --
The Denver Broncos are hosting the San Diego Chargers for the 109th meeting between the two teams, but their first matchup in the playoffs.
The Chargers made it to this game with a 27-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week. The Broncos are in it because their 13-3 regular-season record earned them the number one seed in the division.
Although the Broncos and Chargers have never met in the postseason, Denver's playoff record against divisional rivals is 2-2.
The Broncos' inactive players are: QB ZacDysert, RB Ronnie Hillman, CB Tony Carter, G Chris Kuper, TE Joel Dreessen, DE Derek Wolfe and DT Sione Fua.
The Chargers' inactives are: QB Brad Sorensen, WR/KR Lavelle Hawkins, SS Brandon Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie, G/T Jeromey Clary, T Kenny Wiggins and DT Sean Lissemore.