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Broncos halt Chargers' rally, advance to AFC title game

One year after the Denver Broncos took the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands in the key moments of a divisional round loss, John Fox and company got aggressive Sunday. It paid off.

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The Broncos are headed to the AFC Championship Game following a convincing 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. It's the first time the Broncos have made it this far since the Jake Plummer-led squad lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season. And it sets up a dream matchup for football fans next Sunday: Tom Brady versus Manning for a spot in the Super Bowl.

The Chargers made a furious rally in the final frame, including a successful onside kick, to put some late pressure on Manning and the Broncos' offense. In a similar spot last season, the Broncos ran the ball on third-and-7 against the Baltimore Ravens, and then punted. Fox also kneeled on the ball to force overtime rather than go for a game-winning score.

This time around, the Broncos played to their strengths and Manning responded. With under four minutes left, facing a second-and-17, the Broncos called two straight passes. The first fell incomplete. The second pass was completed to Julius Thomas for a first down, a gut-punch play for Chargers fans. (Third-and-17 will live in infamy next to fourth-and-29.) A few plays later, Manning iced the game with another third-down conversion.

"I'm not going to bite on that one," Fox said after the game when asked about his newfound aggression. Then he did. "I think you adjust to your football team as you go. ... We've got a good passing game. Our regular-season stats prove that."

The late drama and final score makes the game look closer than it really was. The Broncos led by 17 points entering the fourth quarter, and their defense played near-flawless before falling apart late. For much of the contest, this was about as routine as a Divisional Round game gets.

The Broncos out-Chargered the Chargers, chewing up clock with a great running game and third-down play. The Broncos receivers were uncharacteristically sloppy in the red zone, but the Broncos' running game made up for it with 133 yards. Denver's defensive line was dominant for much of the contest; San Diego's offense somehow had just 79 total yards after three quarters.

The Broncos were already scary enough because of their record-breaking offense. This wasn't their best performance, but it showed that Denver can win a different style of game. Strong defense and running was the order of the day throughout Divisional Round Weekend, and the Broncos' performance fit right in.

If the Broncos' defense plays like this for two more games, Peyton should win his second Super Bowl trophy in Eli's building.

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