DENVER (AP) — Philip Rivers fidgeted on the sideline, rocking back and forth as he anxiously watched his defense try to somehow, some way get Peyton Manning off the field late in the game.
One more opportunity with the ball, that’s all Rivers wanted.
Because, “if we got it one more time, I believe deep down we would’ve tied that thing up,” the San Diego quarterback said.
Only, it didn’t happen.
Peyton Manning wasn’t about to allow another meltdown to occur at Mile High. He ran down the clock — converting a key third-and-17 — and took a final knee to help the Denver Broncos advance to the AFC championship game by holding off the Chargers 24-17 on a windy Sunday.
The Broncos (14-3) will host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots next Sunday.
San Diego (10-8) was trying to stun the top-seeded Broncos, much as Baltimore did last season when the Ravens bounced Manning and Denver from the playoffs with a late rally.
This time, Manning secured the win by converting a long third-down play. That play was a big blow to San Diego.
It kept Rivers on the sideline, folding and unfolding his arms, wishing and wishing, his defense could find a way to get him and the offense back the ball.
“We knew we weren’t going to be stopped,” said receiver Keenan Allen who caught six passes for 142 yards and two TDs. “We just got it going.”
Not early, though. The Chargers took a while to warm up in the cooler weather.
Trailing 24-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Chargers began to open up the offense and made things interesting down the stretch.
First, Allen hauled in a 16-yard TD pass from Rivers. Then, San Diego recovered the onside kick, driving deep into Denver territory before settling for a short field goal to make it a one-possession game.
Rather than attempt another onside kick, the Chargers decided to rely on their defense to stop Manning.
For a moment, it looked as if the plan might actually work. They had Denver facing a third-and-17 at the 20. But Manning hit Julius Thomas for a 21-yard gain.
Two first downs later and Manning was taking a knee to close out the game and the Chargers’ season.
“We didn’t get it done. No excuses,” San Diego first-year coach Mike McCoy said. “We didn’t get it done.”
Once again, the Chargers tried to rely on their ground game to grind out a win. But with Ryan Mathews hobbled by a tender ankle, San Diego couldn’t get anything going.
And Rivers struggled through the air, too, completing 7 of 12 passes for 44 yards through three quarters. But then Rivers found his rhythm in the final quarter, finishing the game 18 of 27 for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
Did he wish he would’ve thrown it more earlier in the game?
“It’s always easier after the fact,” said Rivers, whose team had won five straight entering the game. “You wonder, `What if we spread it out a little more?’
“That could’ve turned into a 31-7 or a something worse game. There’s no consolation for losing, but we got going pretty good. They knew.”
They certainly did. The last thing Denver wanted to see was Rivers back on the field. Especially with memories of Baltimore still fresh from a year ago.
Manning took care of business and ended a personal three-game postseason skid.
“We’re extremely disappointed. We’re hurting,” Eric Weddle said. “You work every day, every hour every minute for a chance at the ultimate goal — the Super Bowl. And then to have that goal not attained? It’s hard to deal with.”
The Chargers struggled against not only Manning’s arm, but his cadence. They were called five times for neutral zone infractions.
“Giving a very good quarterback a lot of freebies,” McCoy said. “We got beat by a better football team today.”
Asked if Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt interviewing for head coaching positions played a role in the stagnant offense, McCoy quickly responded: “I’ll stop you right there: Not one bit,”
“He tried to put the best plan together with the rest of the staff, like they’ve done every day of the week from the very first day we’ve been together,” added McCoy, who went through a similar situation last season when he was offensive coordinator of the Broncos. “His No. 1 focus was trying to find a way to win this game.”
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