(Reuters) - The Denver Broncos survived a fourth-quarter fightback by the San Diego Chargers to claim a 24-17 win on Sunday and advance to the AFC Championship game for the first time in eight years.
The victory sets up a tantalizing showdown between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks next Sunday when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit the Mile High city to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
"It's Broncos verses the Patriots, certainly Tom and I have played a lot but when you get to the AFC championship it's about two good teams that did a lot to get there," said Manning. "They're a great team, they had a big win last night so we are going to enjoy this one tonight and start to work on them tomorrow and it ought to be a heck of a game."
Manning, who passed for a record 55 touchdowns during a record-smashing regular season, was more clinical than spectacular on a blustery, cool day in Colorado.
He completed 25 passes for a modest 230 yards, including short touchdown strikes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker in the first half.
The red-hot Chargers arrived in Denver riding the momentum from a five-game winning streak and had looked poised to keep their season alive with a fourth quarter rally that cut Denver's 17-point advantage to seven.
But with just under four minutes to play, Manning would not give Philip Rivers and the Chargers another chance, running out the clock with ball control offense to clinch the victory.
"All-in-all I think our defense played one of its better games," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "It's about doing your job, doing it under pressure but we're going to have to play a lot better going forward."
The Broncos' high-octane offense was firing on all cylinders right from the their first possession, Manning engineering Denver's longest scoring drive of the season marching his team 86 yards capped by two-yard touchdown pass to Thomas.
In the second quarter, Manning put together another long drive finished off by a three-yard pass to Welker to take a 14-0 lead into the intermission.
It was, however, far from a perfect first half for the Broncos with their other two possession ending in an interception in the end zone and a fumble.
The San Diego attack was having far bigger problems, Rivers completing just five of eight pass attempts for 20 yards in an ugly first half while being sacked three times.
Denver had the ball to open the second half and immediately added to lead, Matt Prater booting a 45-yard field goal to put the Broncos up 17-0.
Later in the quarter Prater, who had missed one field goal attempt the entire season, would misfire from the 47 leaving the door slightly opening the door for San Diego's fourth quarter comeback.
Rivers found rookie speedster Keenan Allen with a 16-yard touchdown pass to chop the Denver lead to 17-7.
The Broncos would hit right back, Knowshon Moreno rumbling up the middle for three yards to finish off yet another long drive but the never-say-die Chargers refused to throw in the towel, Rivers firing another 16-yard strike to Allen on their very next possession.
With over five minutes to play, the Chargers recovered an onside kick and turned it into a 30-yard Nick Novak field goal to slice the Denver lead to 24-17, sending a jolt through the soldout stadium.
"This was a pretty intense game, Philip (Rivers) got hot there in the second half and I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end," said Manning. "They are a good football team, they fight, Philip is a battler...so we knew it was going to be a 60-minute game.
"This was a big team win."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Gene Cherry)