Denver • Peyton Manning took a knee again, just as he had at the end of regulation exactly a year earlier.
Only this time, he trotted off to cheers, high-fives and smiles.
Manning welcomed Wes Welker back into the lineup with a touchdown toss Sunday and the Denver Broncos narrowly avoided a repeat of their playoff slip from last year, advancing to the AFC championship game with a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers.
The Broncos (14-3) took a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore’s shocking win 38-35 win in double overtime at Denver.
On that night, Jacoby Jones hauled in a 70-yard pass from Joe Flacco to tie it and Denver coach John Fox had Manning take a knee so the Broncos could regroup in overtime.
This time, 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. “But when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
The Chargers regretted not trying another onside kick after Manning converted a 20-yard pass to Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from his 20-yard line, the first of three third-down conversions on Denver’s final possession.
In their playoff loss last year, the Broncos couldn’t salt away a fourth-quarter lead, in no small part because of curious calls and inexact execution.
Manning also hit Thomas on third-and-6 from his 45, then the Broncos iced it on Knowshon Moreno’s 5-yard burst on third-and-1 with 1:12 left.
San Diego coach Mike McCoy, who was Denver’s offensive coordinator a year ago, was downcast in Denver once again, and so was Rivers, who had led his team to five straight do-or-die wins.
“If we got it one more time, I believe deep down we would’ve tied that thing up,” Rivers said. “But we didn’t. Those are all a bunch of what-ifs.”
Keenan Allen hauled in a 49-yard catch with Quentin Jammer in coverage on fourth-and-5 from the San Diego 25 with seven minutes left. That led to his second TD — both from 16 yards — 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, leading to Nick Novak’s 30-yard field goal with 3:53 remaining that pulled the Chargers (10-8) to within a touchdown.