DENVER --The AFC's road to Super Bowl XLVIII still runs through Denver.
The Broncos defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-17 Sunday afternoon in the Divisional Round of the postseason to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the ninth time in team history.
As the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Broncos will host the game next Sunday against the No. 2 seed New England Patriots, with kickoff scheduled for 1 p.m. MST.
"I thought today was a hard-fought game. Team victory," said wide receiver Eric Decker, who nearly returned a punt for a touchdown in the win. "It's fun to go onto the next step and just stay alive. There are four teams left and to be one of them is pretty special. And I think everyone in this locker room said they are pretty excited."
It was a wire-to-wire win for the Broncos, who took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 2-yard Demaryius Thomas touchdown catch and never looked back.
At halftime, the Chargers had just 1 net passing yard. Through three quarters, the Chargers hadn't cracked 100 yards of total offense. In fact, they had just 79.
"We came out with a lot of energy," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who had three tackles and a quarterback hit in the game. "We fed off the crowd and we just knew what they were going to try to come in and do. We just wanted to eliminate their run game — not let (RB Ryan) Mathews kill us, not let (RB Danny) Woodhead kill us — and make them throw the ball. We did a good job of that the first three quarters."
To Knighton's point, the Chargers finished the game with just 65 rushing yards, with Woodhead's 29 yards leading the team.
But San Diego didn't simply fold.
After a 3-yard Knowshon Moreno touchdown run made it 24-7 Broncos midway through the fourth quarter, the Chargers offense got to work.
Quarterback Philip Rivers found wide receiver Keenan Allen for a 49-yard gain to jumpstart the drive, which was capped by a 16-yard touchdown strike from Rivers to Allen three plays later.
Down just 10 points, the Chargers recovered an onside kick and proceeded to drive 48 yards down the field before settling for a 30-yard field goal to pull to within a touchdown.
"I know people were like, 'deja vu,' but no," said cornerback Champ Bailey, who tied for the team lead with four solo tackles. "We knew better. We knew we had it in control. We just had to go out there and make a few plays."
That's exactly what the Denver offense did after San Diego kicked off to the waiting Trindon Holliday, who took the ball to the 27-yard line with 3:51 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The ensuing drive began with a false start penalty, and it looked like the Chargers would get the ball back as that first-and-15 turned into third-and-17. But Manning and tight end Julius Thomas had something to say about that.
"Third-and-17, you know you're going to have to hold the ball a little bit longer just to give guys a chance to get down the field. It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game," Manning said. "It was good to get the ball out of my hands in time and certainly nice to see Julius catch it."
Thomas went up and hauled in the pass on the sideline for a 21-yard gain and a first down.
After two more runs, the Broncos faced another third down, this time with 2:12 left on the clock. Once again, Manning looked to his playmaking tight end.
"We talked all week about who plays the hardest, the longest," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "When we had to make plays at the end, Julius was in there, and he did a heck of a job making them."
Thomas' 9-yard gain gave the Broncos a fresh set of downs and caused San Diego to use its final timeout.
With the two-minute warning stopping the clock again, the Broncos needed one more first down to ensure that San Diego wouldn't get another chance.
Moreno put that task on his back, gaining 6 yards on second-and-7 and 5 more on third-and-1 to allow Manning to take a knee in the victory formation and secure a trip to the AFC Championship Game.
"It was great. That's what we need. We need clutch drives like that," Bailey said. "That's the way you win games and our offense definitely showed why we're one of the best in the league."
Now, for the first time since the playoffs following the 2005 season, the Broncos will play in the AFC Championship Game. They'll host the Patriots at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in a rematch of Week 12, a game New England won in overtime.
"We're looking forward to it," said defensive end Shaun Phillips, who notched two sacks against the Chargers. "Obviously we're the two best teams in the AFC because we're playing for the AFC championship. What more can you ask for? That's what you want as a football player."
"You want the two best teams going head-to-head, and that's what's going to happen."