Senior NFL Columnist

Win over San Diego helps Broncos erase lingering disappointment

DENVER -- It was like not being able to go to the bathroom for a year, the misery of that feeling with you all the time, waiting for, and then finally getting, that moment of relief.

That might sound crude and nasty. But when I ran that description by some Denver Broncos players after their 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday to describe what they felt like after losing as the top AFC playoff seed last season, then coming back to win here, they didn't disagree.

"Yeah," quarterback Peyton Manning said, "but you can't write it that way, right?"

OK, so maybe it was cleaned up a bit from the version I threw at him, but you get the point. This was a big, giant ... relief for the Broncos, who now advance to the AFC Championship Game next week against New England.

This was a team that agonized for over a year after losing as the top seed to the Baltimore Ravens, maybe nobody more so than Manning, the face of the franchise and the target for many for his playoff failures -- however unfair some of that may be.

This time they won a playoff game unlike any games they won this season, by playing stifling defense for three quarters, controlling the clock and running for 133 yards.

Who was this team? The quick-strike offense was replaced by a grinding style that feasted on San Diego playing so off to protect against the pass. Manning threw for 230 yards, his second lowest total this season.

"All in all, tonight I think we played well up front on both sides of the ball," Broncos coach John Fox said.

That loss to the Ravens last year hung over this team like stale air, following the Broncos' every move. No matter how many gaudy offensive numbers they put up -- and there were plenty of records set this season -- it was always about getting back on this Sports Authority Field at Mile High turf again and putting it behind them, a chance for redemption.

"It was tough to hear all the time, to know we came up short," Broncos corner Champ Bailey said. "We're just trying to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Denver led 24-7 and appeared to be cruising to next week's title game, but the Chargers scored 10 point to cut the deficit to seven and make it a game late.

When they did, you could hear the moans in the crowd and the critics of Manning waiting for disaster again. Admit it, many of you were doing the same.

"Everybody wanted to see a pick-six by the Chargers," Bailey said.

What they saw was Manning and the offense run the four-minute drill to perfection. The biggest play of all was a 21-yard completion to Julius Thomas on third-and-17 with 3:06 left from his own 20. Manning climbed the pocket and found a wide-open Thomas, who did a toe dance to get his feet in bounds. Two more first downs, including a third-down throw to Thomas for 9 yards on third-and-6, and Denver was advancing.

"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," Manning said. "It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game."

When the final seconds clicked off, the relief was obvious on the Denver sideline. But after a Nick Novak field goal cut the lead to 24-17 with 3:53 left, the Broncos even had some nervous moments on their sideline.

"I know when they scored, everybody started looking around like here we go again," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I wasn't nervous at all."

So where were you watching that last drive?

"I was sitting down," said Knighton, who is in his first year with the team as a free agent from Jacksonville and might not have understood the tension as much. "I was calm. The whole team was standing up. I was the only one sitting, I think."

It's hard for a team to admit that something that happened a year ago would impact what they do for 365 days, but there is no denying it did. When I visited this team in May, you could feel it. Observers close to them said it was noticeable all season long. The fancy numbers and accolades to earn the top seed were great, but none of it would have mattered if they failed -- or fail -- in the playoffs again.

Manning, ever the historian of the game, said he spoke to the team Saturday night about what they had accomplished to be in this position again. It's not easy to get the top seed in consecutive years. And, luckily for them, they didn't lose in consecutive years to go with it.

"I really think this team needs to be commended for even getting to this point," Manning said. "There were a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year. Atlanta, Washington -- everybody says in the locker room, 'Let's get back next year.' It's hard to get back. I talked to the team last night. I said you need to be commended for getting back to this point. We've been through more this year. We are proud and happy to be at this point and we certainly want to keep it going."

The shock in this one was how well the Denver defense played. They came in after finishing the season ranked 19th in total defense and 27th against the pass. Until the fourth quarter, they limited San Diego, a team that beat them on this field in early December, to 25 yards passing through three quarters.

The Chargers got the passing game going in the fourth quarter when Denver was forced to play without corner Chris Harris, who left with knee and ankle problems. His status is in question for next week, which would be a key loss when readying to face Tom Brady.

San Diego attacked Quentin Jammer and had success to make it a game and, in the process, get all those in the I Hate Peyton Club on the edge of their seats. Only this time, it wasn't to be. Only this time, the Broncos found a way with two huge throws by Manning. No more can the cultists say he hasn't done what their guy named Tebow did in a Broncos uniform, which was to win a playoff game.

"That was some big third downs on that drive," Bailey said. "That doesn't happen a lot in four-minute football."

There was an ESPN report that Manning will have to undergo a neck exam to determine whether he will play after this season. Asked whether that was weighing on him, he said, "It's really not. What's weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth. Even the Patriots is (too far) ahead. And that question is way too far ahead."

As Manning made his way out of the stadium, his forehead still red from his helmet, he shook hands and hugged his family and friends, the relief of this playoff victory so easy to see. This was a man who wondered himself after 2011 neck surgery if he would ever even play again, let alone compete at this level.

Now he's one game away from his third Super Bowl. The only thing standing in his way is his old nemesis, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, but for at least a few hours, before jumping in to dissect the Patriots tape, this was a quarterback and a team that was feeling so much lighter than just a day ago.

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