Bron­cos sur­vive a “grinder” to ad­vance to AFC ti­tle game vs. Pa­tri­ots

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Saun­ders Pa­trick Saun­ders: psaun­ders@den­ver­post.com or @psaun­der­sdp

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.”

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

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.

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