A BIG ONE TO WIN
Broncos survive a “grinder” to advance to AFC title game vs. Patriots
The Broncos are one victory away from their eighth trip to the Super Bowl. Defeat the defending champion New England Patriots in next Sunday’s AFC championship game and it’s on to Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.
The Broncos’ itinerary to the golden anniversary of America’s biggest sporting spectacle looked suspect late Sunday afternoon. Despite a stadium shaking and quaking with Broncos fanatics, Big Orange looked all but crushed. The Pittsburgh Steelers were leading 13-12 and driving for another possible score.
Then the Broncos’ defense delivered, as it has all season. Bradley Roby forced a fumble, poking the ball from Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware recovered — and the momentum switched. The Broncos drove 65 yards for their lone touchdown to pull out a gritty, if at times unsightly, 23-16 victory.
Wide receiver Bennie Fowler snared a clutch 31-yard pass from quarterback Peyton Manning to jump-start the drive, and C.J. Anderson plowed in from the 1-yard line with three minutes left to give Denver an 18-13 lead. The Broncos tacked on a two-point conversion.
“I think it helps playing a lot of close games during the course of the season,” Manning said. “That was a dogfight, a grinder that went right down to the last drive. If you can be in a lot of those games, and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence.”
Denver is 10-3 this season in games decided by seven points or fewer. Until the late drive, kicker Brandon McManus was the Broncos’ offense. He finished with five field goals, a team postseason record.
“We started kind of sluggish, but we were able to pick it up in the fourth quarter and win,” veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “At the end of the day, we got the win. Even though it wasn’t the prettiest win in the world, we got another shot, we got another week.”
Manning, in his 18th season, now faces New England quarterback Tom Brady for the 17th time. Manning is 5-11 against Brady in head-to-head matchups of the two future Hall of Famers.
“Man, I’m not even thinking about the Patriots right now,” said cornerback Aqib Talib. “Let us soak up this one a little bit. I’ll start thinking about the Patriots and Brady soon enough.”
From left, Denver’s Evan Mathis, Ryan Harris and Andre Caldwell celebrate a 1-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson with three minutes left in Sunday’s 23-16 victory over Pittsburgh in an AFC divisional playoff game.